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Nottingham’s second Festival of Words will take place in October this year. It will be a celebration of the spoken and written word, as well as a key part of the city’s bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature – keep an eye on that website, which will fill up at an alarming rate over the next couple of months!

Sarah Dale – a great force for literature and all things good in Nottingham – has kicked off a blog-hop to celebrate the Festival. You can read her opening blogpost here. She passed the baton to Pam McIlroy and Andrew Kells, and Andrew kindly passed it on to me. When I’ve finished answering the questions I’ll be nudging Rachel Phillips and Nicki Hastie to carry on the good work.

What’s your connection with Nottingham and its written and spoken words?
I’ve loved Nottingham ever since I came here to university in 1984. How could you not love a city that has a memorial plaque to Xylophone Man? Rosie Garner’s poem is a perfect example of how the written and spoken word pervades the city. But enough about Nottingham. More about me. I’m the Development Director for Nottingham Writers’ Studio, and I also work for Five Leaves Publications and occasionally for Five Leaves Bookshop, the first independent bookshop in Nottingham this millenium. I’m currently working with a large group of people to put in a bid for Nottingham to become a UNESCO City of Literature. And sometimes I’ve even been known to write some stuff.

What do you love about Nottingham and its creative scene right now?
Mainly, that it’s happening anywhere and everywhere. I just had a look round the Surface Gallery on Friday, just across the road from the Writers’ Studio… they’ve got 24 local street artists painting the wall of the bus station in the alley behind the gallery… and some amazing artists inhabiting their studios… and I didn’t even know it existed till a couple of months ago! They’re keen to get a writer in residence, and I’m sure we’ll make something happen. That’s just one example of collaboration between the myriad facets of grass-roots creative activity that are happening all over the city. It’s almost too exciting!

How would you describe Nottingham to a visitor coming to the Festival of Words?
A city full of surprises, a city full of enthusiasm and friendliness, a city full of literature and art. A city you’ll never want to leave.

That’s me done. Time to hand over to the next pair of hoppers. Nicki and Rachel, it’s up to you!

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Megan Taylor, writer extraordinaire who is currently taking the short story world by storm after completely winning me over with her second novel The Dawning, has nominated fellow writer extraordinaire Giselle Leeb and (inexplicably) me to take part in a blog relay amble. This involves answering a few questions about writing before handing them on to two more writers. It’s already been round some amazing writers such as Matt Cresswell, Kerry Hadley, Anne Jensen, Louise Swingler, Graeme Shimmin and Steve Hollyman.

You can read Megan’s blog here, and don’t forget to check out Giselle’s answers, and those given by the other writers, too.

So, the questions…

What am I working on?

I have two projects on the go at the moment (or, more accurately, on the go-very-slow). I’ve been writing a novel for over seven years – a kind of magical realism fantasy type thing which is about a woman whose roots are in a small rural village, where the villagers made a deal with the land back in prehistoric times that each would look after the other. The land is struggling, and needs the woman’s help to recover. Magic and history and romance all entwine to make what will hopefully be an interesting story. I’ve started it three times now, and I’m hoping that at some point soon (and with the help of a marvellous critique group at NWS) I’ll get the bugger finished.

More recently, I’ve started writing poetry, and I’m getting more and more excited about what poetry can do. I’m hoping to use it to convey the ideas embodied in quantum theory… sounds a bit bonkers, but I’ve been trying to get my head round quantum mechanics for years, and I’m increasingly convinced that it’s virtually impossible to really explain it using prose. It can, obviously, only be properly expressed in mathematics, but I think it could be explained to some extent using poetry. We’ll see.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

What a weird question! I don’t think the novel does, particularly. It’s not very genre-specific, in that it probably would be classified as literary fiction (or maybe mainstream fiction) rather than fantasy or sci-fi. The poetry… hmm… poets have written about every topic under, above and including the sun. So how can I say whether my work differs, let alone how it differs? However, I was lucky enough to have a one-to-one with Jane Commane, the truly lovely publisher at Nine Arches Press, yesterday, and she seemed interested in the idea, so perhaps it’s different enough to be worth publishing at some point.

Why do I write what I do?

I write the novel because I enjoy reading, and I’d like to contribute to the general entertainment of the reading masses. I write the poetry because it’s fun, challenging and rewarding. Hell, that’s why I write the novel too. And all the other stuff I write.

How does my writing process work?

‘Process’ is definitely not the right word. It’s more like: ‘scrabbling around to find a few spare moments to wrangle some words into something like writing.’ As anyone who knows me can attest, I’ve become a workaholic late in life (something to do with having to earn a living somehow after being chewed up and spat out by the computing industry, but more to do with finally discovering how fulfilling it is to work at something you love). So I don’t have a lot of free time, and much of that is taken up with sitting on the sofa allowing my brain to switch off.

I’ve never been one of those people who can get up early and write (apart from anything else, I rarely get to bed before midnight), and I don’t have anything even vaguely resembling a routine. You should see my diary… or rather, perhaps you shouldn’t… So making space to write is not easy.

One thing that does drive me is deadlines – I’m one of those annoying people who leaves everything to the last minute, but I’m incredibly productive in those last few days and hours before a deadline. So I harness that in my writing practice. I’ve signed up for a part-time Creative Writing MA (which I can’t afford, in terms of money or time) which forces me to find time to write. And I’ve been a member of a fiction critique group at NWS for nearly 3 years now, which makes me keep going with my novel.

However, I do believe that everything I do and think and read contributes to my writing. So from that perspective I’m writing all the time!

Nominations

In turn, I’m going to ask the two newest members of Nottingham Writers’ StudioKim Jamison and Eleanor Hemsley to take on the baton and continue the amble. They don’t know about it yet because I’ve forgotten to actually ask them, but I hope they won’t mind.

Do drop by their blogs next Monday to find out more…

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What is the Old Bat on about?

A few months ago, an artist friend contacted me to discuss ideas for writer-artist collaboration. She’s a member of a group of artists who all graduated from the brilliant Fine Art degree programme at the University of Nottingham (which, shamefully, the University has closed down) – the group calls themselves Untitled.

One thing led to another, and we have now formed a group that includes Untitled artists and Nottingham Writers’ Studio writers. We had our first meeting last week, and came up with all sorts of interesting questions. The first question was, “What should we call the group?”… hence Untitled/Anonymous.

Image of an extract from A Humument by Tom Phillips

Extract from ‘A Humument’ by Tom Phillips

Other questions, to which I don’t yet have but am greatly looking forward to finding answers, include:

How are the processes of writing and making art similar and different?
One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion was finding out about each others’ processes. I hadn’t thought before about how writing and art are similar – you have an idea, skirt around it for a while, make sketches or write drafts, start to make the real thing, edit-edit-edit, produce ‘completed work’… we didn’t get into how the processes are different, but I’m sure more observations on this will arise during the collaboration.

What does the use of ‘cross-media’ do to a finished piece of visual/textual work?
i.e. not just combining words with visual elements, we can use the other senses too, including audio components and textures for instance. How will this affect the work we produce? How can we collaborate to find innovative ways of combining artistic elements?

How does the concept of narrative affect our work?
Narrative is an important concept for most people in the group – how a finished work contains and creates narrative, but also how narrative is inherent in most objects in the world. It’s obvious how narrative is contained in most writing, but how does it feature in visual art? and how can we find it in our surroundings and represent that in cross-media art?

I’m excited about the work this group will produce, I’m sure it’ll be fascinating, whichever direction it takes us in. I’ll keep you informed…

More about What Writing Is

Image of tape measure and steel ruleI enjoyed the exercise I wrote about in a recent blog post so much, that I tried it with the Nottingham Dovetail group. And they came up with some wonderful metaphors, which you can read here. My favourite keeps changing, but the current one is:

Writing is like a tailor’s measuring tape when you need a carpenter’s metal yard, when you need the stiff manageable steel that lays on ANYTHING flat. You have a floppy reel of cloth that falls off everything and is only tidy when it is rolled up in itself rendering it useless for its actual purpose. by Joêl Daniel

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When I was at university the first time round, decades ago, there was a period of six months when I was unaccountably grumpy. Eventually I realised it was because I wasn’t reading anything for fun. It’s always been my habit to read before going to sleep (and at other times, of course, but always before sleeping), and for a variety of reasons it wasn’t happening at that time in my life. So I started reading again, and returned to my usual approximation of a reasonable human being.

As anyone who reads my Facebook updates will know, I’ve been quite grumpy lately too. Not because I haven’t been reading. Oh no, I’ve learned that lesson. I thought it was because I’m so busy. I don’t think I’ve had a day off for a month or so now, that includes evenings and weekends. Enough to make anyone grumpy, you might think. I would disagree. I love everything I’m doing at the moment. Everything. How lucky does that make me? The only minor problems are lack of time and money, but they’re small irritations and will sort themselves out. So… what on earth is wrong with me?

The Believer by Francis Upritchard

The Believer by Francis Upritchard

Yesterday I went to Nottingham Contemporary for the first time since the new exhibition opened – I’d enrolled on the Study Sessions series of workshops with Wayne Burrows and Sarah Jackson (wonderful poets and All Round Good Eggs). The aim of the sessions is to write one or more pieces of text departing from the work of the two artists currently being exhibited – Alfred Kubin and Francis Upritchard.

First of all, I was completely blown away by the artwork on display. Kubin’s drawings are grotesque but at the same time intensely human, drawing out the uncertainties and fears we all repress. And Upritchard’s sculptures are also grotesque and intensely human, but in a completely different way. They seem to be open to possibilities, not scary at all. I could have spent the two hours simply wandering around the exhibition and gazing at everything.

Writing notes

Pages from my notebook

That wasn’t the point though. The point was to write something. And I did. I scribbled notes and paragraphs and descriptions and free-writing, I jotted down thoughts and made diagrams with arrows and footnotes, I filled pages of my notebook with ideas for a story. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. I want to finish all my work so I can start writing. I’m cheerful and energetic and bouncy. I want to stop writing this blog so I can write the story, and another story, and a poem or several, and…

I NEED TO WRITE!

Believe it or not, this is a surprising discovery. I knew I liked writing, but I never really understood people who said they ‘need’ to write. I thought I wasn’t a proper writer, because I didn’t share that ‘need’. I thought to myself… well, I’ll just make myself a career around writing, I’ll teach and publish and edit and proofread and typeset. And it doesn’t matter if I don’t have time to write.

How wrong I was.

Now all I have to do is make sure I have that time. It’s a good job I can get by on a couple of hours sleep a night. (I’m lying. I can’t.)

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Friday night was pizza night in our house, from when I started school until Mum went away. After school, Rachael and Lily and I had chores. We had to clean out the rabbits, weed the flowerbeds, and tidy our bedrooms. Meanwhile, Mum would make the pizzas.

She used three different toppings each week, and never the same one twice. This was exciting to begin with, while there were still palatable toppings to choose from. We even won a prize once, when Giovanni’s Italian Restaurant had a competition for the best new pizza. Who would have thought that cherries, jalapeno peppers and cashew nuts would taste so delicious in combination? We called it ‘Sarah’s Hot and Crunchy’ because the cashew nuts were my suggestion.

After a couple of years, Mum was really struggling for inspiration, and we began to dread Fridays. To make things worse, after a while she would only use foods that started with the same letter of the alphabet, a different letter each week chosen at random from a Scrabble bag. I think Dad must have taken out some of the letters after the first time she drew a Z. Zucchini, zabaglione and zinc tablets do not go together very well.

Most weeks, stress levels in our household rose steadily from breakfast time on Monday morning, when the letter was chosen, to the moment that the new pizza was presented to us on Friday evening. Then, if the combination wasn’t a success, Mum was miserable for the whole weekend. I think the worst time, before they took Mum away, was when she drew an L. Our bathroom was in use all of Friday night and Saturday, as lentils, liver and lime pickle didn’t agree with our digestive systems.

The final pizza night was different from all the others. R was the letter for the week, and Mum had been feverishly leafing through recipe books and dictionaries in search of ingredients since Monday. On Thursday evening we didn’t get a bed-time story, as Dad was too busy consoling Mum, who’d only managed to come up with one potential topping – rowan berries – and Dad had told her they were probably poisonous. At breakfast on Friday, Rachael asked if she could stay with her friend Charlotte overnight. She’d been doing that a lot lately, but never on a Friday before. Mum didn’t mind though.

After school, Lily weeded the flower beds and I cleaned out the rabbits. Then we crept through the kitchen, where Mum was sitting with her head in her hands. Our bedrooms were somehow more untidy than usual, so it took a while to straighten things out. I got into a fight with Lily because some of my books turned up in her bedroom. Dad came home from work and pulled us apart just as Mum was serving up.
The four of us sat around the table, staring at our slices of pizza. Mum was grinning widely.

‘Guess what it is this week!’ she said, and then she burst into laughter so loud I had to cling onto Dad’s arm. She started rocking backwards and forwards, and when she tilted her head and her hair fell back I noticed there was a smudge of red on the tip of her ear. Probably tomato sauce.

Lily said, ‘I don’t know. It looks like bits of meat.’

‘Well, just eat it. I’m not going to tell you what it is. You have to guess.’

Dad put on his brave face, the one he was wearing more and more that year. He cut a piece and lifted it to his mouth. We watched him chew as though strings tied our eyes to his lips. Then he smiled.

‘Actually, it’s not bad. I’ve no idea what it is though, it tastes like liver and kidney and maybe chicken drumsticks. Can’t be that, can it? Unless…’ He smiled again, and touched Mum’s hand. ‘You are clever. It’s different parts of the same animal, isn’t it? An animal whose name begins with R?’

‘That’s exactly right! Come on girls, eat up!’ Mum watched us as avidly as we’d watched Dad. It wasn’t bad at all. We finished every crumb, although none of us could guess what the animal was.

Then we had the best evening ever. Dad put on the DVD of ‘Finding Nero’, and we all snuggled up on the sofa together with a bowl of popcorn. Mum kept tickling me until I kicked Lily accidentally, then we had to pause the DVD while we all had a tickle fight and cleared up the popcorn, which ended up all over the floor.

Later that night, when the house was dark, I was having trouble sleeping. I guess I was hyped up after the wonderful time we’d had. I wondered what the mystery animal was, the one that had been sacrificed for our pizza night.

Suddenly, I had a horrible thought. I crept into Lily’s bedroom. She was still awake too, and her wide frightened eyes told me she had exactly the same thought.

We both spoke together, ‘Rachael’s name begins with R.’

And then I said, ‘That wasn’t tomato sauce on her ear.’

That was a very long night. Neither of us said any more. We curled up together in Lily’s bed and cried and cried until we fell asleep. I dreamed of Mum suffocating Rachael with a pillow, and then I thought I woke up and went downstairs, but I was still dreaming, and I saw Mum cutting Rachael’s liver out on the kitchen table.

Next morning Dad made pancakes for breakfast, which would normally have been great, except I thought I’d never be able to eat again. Lily’s face was as white as the lilies-of-the-valley she’d weeded around the day before.

The front door opened. Dad looked up.

‘Ah, Rachael, maybe you’ll eat some of these pancakes. These two don’t seem to be hungry.’

‘Thanks Dad, that’d be great. By the way, what happened to the rabbits?’

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I never understood why Chloe wanted to join the Girl Guides. She came home every Tuesday evening looking miserable, and she never went on any of the outings or brought friends home. She did, however, enjoy earning the badges. The first one she got was for needlework. I’ve always insisted she mended her own clothes, so she’s very neat and quick with a needle and thread. She put that skill to good use over the next year, sewing badge after badge onto her blue uniform. For cookery, she planned and catered a dinner party, and invited the Lord Mayor to join the Guide leader and the rest of her patrol. He came, as well, with his chain round his neck. She didn’t invite me. I wouldn’t have been able to go anyway, I had a flower-arranging class.

When she’d just turned twelve, the local fire brigade offered to help the girls get their firefighting badges. I’ve never seen her so excited. She said it was the last one she needed for some sort of award. She read all the books about fire that she could find, and wrote long lists of questions for the firemen who came every week to give talks and demonstrations. If her dad had been alive he would have encouraged her, but I’ve never really known how to deal with her odd behaviour.

One Tuesday I saw her going out after tea wearing jeans and t-shirt. I asked why she wasn’t wearing her uniform.

‘We’re going to the fire station today for the final test. I told you about it last week,’ she said.

Later that evening, as I was making my cocoa, I realised she should have been home at least an hour earlier. I initially assumed the tests had taken longer than expected, but by the time I put my empty mug on the draining board I was beginning to get annoyed with her. I didn’t mind her staying out, I generally let her please herself, but she should have let me know.

As if she’d heard my thoughts, the phone rang. It wasn’t Chloe’s voice at the other end of the line though.

‘Hello, Mrs Hunter?’

‘That’s right. Who is this, please?’

‘I’m Nurse Beckett, from the Children’s Ward at Northampton General Hospital. We’ve got your daughter Chloe here.’

For a split second my irritation intensified, then I’m not quite sure what happened. I heard the nurse say, ‘Mrs Hunter? Are you still there?’ as I put the phone down and went into the kitchen to wash up. I’d only just filled the bowl and pulled on my rubber gloves when the phone rang again, so I ignored it. I didn’t want to waste the hot water.

I’d nearly finished drying the pots when there was a loud hammering at the front door. I put the last plate away and went into the hall, unsure whether to answer the door at that time of night. I could see the end of a fingertip holding the letterbox open.

‘Mrs Hunter, are you all right?’ The voice was male, and too loud. ‘I’m PC Ledger. The hospital called the station and asked us to check up on you. Said you’d just had some bad news?’

What was wrong with me? I had a policeman kneeling at the front door, and Chloe was in hospital. And I’d just finished the washing up.

I opened the door. PC Ledger appeared to be about three years older than Chloe. He rose to his feet. ‘I’ve got a car out front, would you like me to take you up to the hospital?’

There are times in one’s life when one has to suffer indignities for the sake of one’s child. Climbing into a police car in full view of several pairs of eyes peeking from neighbouring windows was certainly one of those times. Thankfully the constable didn’t switch on the sirens or lights, or screech his tyres as we left.

He did drive very quickly though. It only took five minutes to get there. I apologised for troubling him as I got out of the car. He awkwardly reached out and touched my arm, and said, ‘I’m sure your daughter will be OK, Mrs Hunter.’ How did he know?

A porter pointed me in the direction of the Children’s Ward, and I was met at the double doors by a brisk woman who introduced herself as Nurse Beckett.

‘Chloe’s sleeping now. She’s had a nasty scare, but she’s going to be OK. We’re just keeping her in for observation.’

‘What happened? Is she badly hurt?’

‘Oh no, she just got very cold and shaken up, a few bruises, nothing worse than that. We had to warm her up a bit, that’s why we want to keep an eye on her.’

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ Couldn’t the woman get to the point?

‘I’m sorry, I thought you’d been told…’

‘Of course I haven’t, who would have told me?’

‘I’m sorry…’

‘Just tell me what happened, for pity’s sake.’

‘According to the Guide leader, some of the other girls dared her to climb on top of a fire engine, and then one of them nipped to the phone box and reported a huge fire. Chloe managed to wedge herself in and hang onto the ladder, but she was still thrown around, and the wind froze her stiff, the poor mite.’

I started walking down the ward. Nurse Beckett darted alongside me, tiptoeing like a nervous burglar. I couldn’t see Chloe, until the nurse took my elbow and steered me towards a bed I’d overlooked on first glance. Her tiny pale face, as white as the pillowcase it was resting on, was that of a girl half her age. At the same time, it was the face of her father lying motionless on the pier at Southend.

‘Tell her I’ll bring some clothes in the morning. No point staying if she’s asleep.’

I turned and walked away.

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Chloe again…

She’s finally surfaced and is going to answer your questions. She was sulking with a hangover yesterday, too much introspection and Chardonnay the night before, if you ask me. So, Chloe, it’s over to you. Take as many posts as you want, don’t rush.

Thanks, Old Bat. I didn’t know your friends were such a nosey crowd, or I wouldn’t have let you talk me into this! I’ll start with the easy ones and work my way up (of course, you can draw whatever conclusions you like from the order I tackle the questions in).

How many pairs of shoes do you own?

My favourite trainers

My favourite trainers

Nine. Three smart pairs for work (blue, grey and black, to go with the rest of my capsule wardrobe). Two pairs of Nike trainers which I wear most of the time outside work (I always buy black ones, and when my best pair is getting shabby I buy a new pair and donate the older pair to Oxfam). Strappy red sandals, black flat shoes, and gold stilettos (for going out). A pair of expensive walking boots (essential to keep feet dry and blister-free on long hikes).

What’s a typical Saturday for you?
Chances are John will be out with his mates, playing with the latest boy toys. Last month a couple of them bought speedboats, and they race them on the Thames. So I can do pretty much as I please. I get up early and do the Waitrose shopping before it gets busy (I’m not a morning person, but Waitrose is awful at the weekend, and I get really bad trolley rage). If John’s up when I get back we’ll have a coffee together and read the Telegraph. When he goes out I write a letter to the editor – I do that most weeks. Usually about green issues and the impact of people on our environment. I feel very strongly about that. I actually got one published once. Then I’ll go out, post the letter, and most Saturdays I join Doreen for lunch at a tiny Caribbean cafe she discovered ages ago. Their jerk chicken is the best I’ve ever had. We’ll talk about her grandchildren, who are always getting into ridiculous scrapes (I thought it was only in the Beano that kids got saucepans stuck on their heads), she’ll try to persuade me to leave John, then I’ll steer the conversation back to small children. In the afternoon I might visit a garden centre, just to see the plants I’d choose if I had a garden. And in the evening, if John’s out I’ll drink Chardonnay in front of the TV, if he’s around we might go to the pictures.

Do you have any internet friends? Are you on facebook/twitter?
I don’t do the social networking thing, I’m not even quite sure what twitter is. Sounds a bit pervy, everyone following everyone else. I think I have a facebook account, but I haven’t logged into it for a while. I’m signed up for quite a few internet newsletters, like the Rainforest Alliance and the WWF. My mum discovered email last year and she’s always sending me messages, nothing interesting most of the time but she gets upset if I don’t reply. Denise emails once or twice a week, telling me about her wonderful life as a wife and mother. She’s so different from when we were at school, smoking in the toilets and dancing in our bedrooms to Curiosity Killed The Cat (two shameful secrets for the price of one there!). Apart from that, a few ex-colleagues and ex-school/uni friends stay in touch but nothing significant.

As I thought...

As I thought...

How would you score if you took ‘How evil are you?’
I’d be a kitten… hang on…
Oi! Old Bat!
What?
Can I borrow your Facebook?
Go on then, but get on with answering those questions.
Right… yep, a kitten.

When did you last dream about how you’d kill John?
I’ve never dreamed or thought about killing him. But now you’ve put the idea in my head… LOL, not really! Sometimes I think it’d be fun to destroy his current favourite toy though. Back in January it would have been the Ducatti that’s now under a tarpaulin in his mate’s garage. Now it’s the speedboat, but that’s only half his.

Are you into politics or religion, and if not, why not?
I’d be interested in politics if we had an effective Green movement in the UK. I did go on the Countryside Alliance march, not because I agree with fox-hunting, but because I don’t think people like me who live in towns and cities should dictate how things work in the countryside. As for religion, I do go to church most Sundays and I guess I do believe in a higher being of some sort. This is a secret I haven’t told anyone, but when I’m gardening at Mum’s or out walking in the countryside I sometimes hear a voice that’s somehow bigger than any human being. I’m not sure what it’s saying, it sounds like it comes from a long way away. And no-one else can hear it. If that’s not God, who is it?

I think that’s enough for now. I’ll come back tomorrow and answer the rest of your questions, but right now I need to lie down in a darkened room.

Thanks, Chloe. This is much appreciated, it helps me understand you a whole lot better.

And many thanks to Julian, Laura, Steph, Fran and Adrian too, we couldn’t do this without you!

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