Saturday, 13 May 2017

Flashes of fiction.

Today I attended a flash fiction workshop hosted by Greenacre Writers and led by Ingrid Jendrzejewski, who has won a number of flash fiction competitions including the prestigious Bath Flash Fiction Award in 2016.

Ingrid's aim was to take us out of our comfort zone. She set exercises to do just that! She also introduced the concept of the iceberg where only a small proportion of the berg is visible with 90% beneath the surface. The limitation of words in flash fiction - be it 6 words or 1,000 - means keeping much of the story hidden. What is visible is only a small part of the story and needs precision so the reader can still understand it. To quote Hemingway, who says it so much better. "...a writer...may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them." (The Art of Fiction, No 21 The Paris Review.)

Ingrid also spoke about the many forms of flash fiction including prose poems. Different publishers seek different forms with some preferring the narrative style - a concise short story, while others publish the prose poem forms - research is key in finding the outlets for your particular style. She also gave us some excellent examples of flash fiction including stories by Tania Hershman to read and consider, as well as plenty of resources for books, workshops, and publishers for our work.

If you have the opportunity to attend one of Ingrid's workshops I can thoroughly recommend it!

I have had a few of my flash pieces published and many more rejected. On my return from the workshop I found a tweet from Reflex Fiction with a link to my piece 'No Mirrors' - its publication today meant it that while it reached the long-list in this competition, it hasn't made it any further. With renewed enthusiasm gained from Ingrid's workshop, maybe my next one will do better!

By discovering several typos as I was writing this, I can now confirm that several genres exist: flesh fiction (courtesy of Rosie Canning) lash fiction, flask fiction and flush fiction. Take your pick.


Saturday, 15 April 2017

Confessions of a speech and language therapist.

April 16th is World Voice Day.

Ever since I was a speech therapy student (we added the 'language' bit later) I have worked with people with voice problems and now specialize in that particular area of SLT.

My voice patients vary hugely. The youngest was two and a half and the oldest some ninety years older. They come from a wide range of backgrounds and ethnicity. Some are professional voice users, others not. Anyone can have a voice problem.

I take my work very seriously but there are a few smiles along the way. I had to keep a straight face when one lady told me that the doctor was quite wrong telling her she had noodles in her throat, as that wasn't possible because she never ate noodles, horrible things. She meant nodules. Nothing to do with what you eat but often related to shouting. Which she did quite a lot. She answered her phone in my clinic to speak to her son and I almost lost my hearing.

I still wonder whether I irrevocably ruined one singer's career. He assured me he always drank a special concoction before a performance 'because it coats my vocal cords making it easier to sing.' I forbore to point out that it had obviously lost its efficacy as he was in my clinic - but instead gave him a little anatomy lesson. If his miracle drink ever went near his vocal cords he would be coughing and spluttering and wouldn't sound much good. He seemed quite devastated with my explanation, having been quite sure that his vocal cords were positioned vertically in his larynx along which the liquid would slide neatly down to his stomach. Without his placebo - can he still sing? Gargles don't act on the vocal cords either, by the way.

I asked one lady, who had very mild dysphonia (voice problem), whether her voice prevented her from carrying out any activities. 'Not really,' she replied, then said, 'I am a bit upset about not being able to sing in the supermarket.' She added 'you know, when you just want to burst into song in the supermarket? I often do that. It cheers me up.'

She and I do not shop at the same place, or at least not at the same time, because I have never heard snatches of song whilst shopping. Children yelling sometimes, but singing, no. I wasn't sure whether restoring her voice would go down well with her fellow shoppers or not!

Another patient who worked in a supermarket (was it the same one?) was surprised to see me when I was picking up a few things for dinner, and asked if I had come to check up on how she was using her voice at work. I reassured her I was just doing some shopping (thank goodness I wasn't buying six bottles of gin and multi-packs of chocolate!) But what a job that would be - I'd get to quite a few places. In the last few months I'd have been visiting schools - a lot, theatres, night-clubs, fitness classes (perhaps I should!), shops, hairdressers, taken bus rides and taxi rides, visited the The Old Bailey, and The House of Lords to name but a few.

Teachers sometimes admit to shouting to their pupils to keep the noise down but I wasn't expecting to one patient's explanation for her hoarse voice. 'I have to shout at the lions.' But it all in a day's work when you're Lion Keeper at a wildlife park! Checking up on her at work would have been a jolly day out for me. Must get that written into the job description.

At one hospital, I saw a patient who was an anaesthetist at the same hospital. She popped in for her appointment wearing her theatre greens. 'Will I be more than an hour? I've got to extubate someone in about 70 minutes. They've got my mobile number if there's a problem in the meantime, so I might have to dash.' She wasn't kidding, but there was of course, another anaesthetist to hand! (In case you are concerned about H&S - she would have changed into new theatre greens on her return. Now they are no longer worn outside theatres at all!)

I thoroughly enjoyed the scene in the waiting area when another of my clients turned up for his appointments in his work clothes. He was a specialist tribute singer. Other patients were a little surprised to find themselves sitting next to a very convincing Elvis.

There's never a dull moment!

If you are interested in finding out more about World Voice Day or want to know what a larynx looks like, take a look at the website.

More information about the voice and its care can be found on The British Voice Association website.

PS: Note to writers: It's vocal cords, not chords.






Friday, 17 March 2017

The first three months...

Spring is on the way.
Almost three months of the year are already past and with it, I hope, the worst of winter. The months have brought me mixed tidings.

I bade my daughter farewell in the first week of January for her journey to Australia where she is relocating having married an Aussie. They are going a long way round with a four month trip through 20+ countries of Central and South America. Thank goodness for email and Skype.

Losing my mother just a week later was a great sadness, although not unexpected. I keep reading or hearing things and thinking 'Oh I must tell Mum, she'll be interested to hear that,' and then remembering! She died knowing her granddaughter was going to live in the land where she was born which gave her a wonderful sense of continuity. In spite of living in England for 85 of her 95 years she still identified with Australia and in the brief notes of her life that she wrote to be read at her funeral, she mentioned how awful the weather was on the day she arrived at Tilbury in June 1931. She said it never improved much.

These two most important women in my life were also the two who provided some of my best conversations, so I'm feeling quite bereft.

On a happier note, the day after my mother's funeral I received a letter telling me I had won The Great British Write Off flash fiction competition and a lovely fat cheque! That put a smile on my face. I just wish the news had come a couple of weeks earlier so I could have told my mother who would have been delighted. The winnings will be put towards another trip because my daughter and son-in-law have now visited more countries than me and that's just not right!

I did add Australia to my country tally last September, so in the spirit of finding out more about books Down Under and Australian authors I reviewed The Book That Made Me edited by Judith Ridge, for the Greenacre Writers blog. Read my review here.

At the end of last year I had been interviewed by author Leslie Tate, who I met at an author event in November as he was interested in my work as a speech and language therapist as well as my literary endeavours. He posted the interview in January which you can read here.

So here's to spring and sunny weather, and productive reading and writing.






Monday, 16 January 2017

My mother's gift to me.

My mother introduced me to literature with stories. Bedtime stories and anytime stories. My early favourites included the Beatrix Potter books and Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit series. I loved My Naughty Little Sister, by Dorothy Edwards. That's what my older sisters called me, but I knew that the child in the book was naughtier than anything I could come up with, because she did lots of really silly things which I viewed with a four-year-old's contempt. However I was rather impressed when she went on a train journey by herself with only the guard to keep an eye on her. I also liked the Milly Molly Mandy series, by Joyce Lankester Brisley, especially as I had my own Little Friend Susan. I did wish Milly Molly Mandy would choose something other than stripes for her dresses though. She nearly did once. 

Like many children I also listened to 'Listen With Mother' with my mother! Co-incidentally it was first broadcast on this very day in 1950.

Learning to read was effortless and seemingly took no time at all so I read books for myself by age five or six but still liked my mother reading to me. One book that I enjoyed was Treasures of the Snow by Patricia St. John. Set in Switzerland it featured children who skied to school in winter which sounded wonderful, although I imagined the walk back up the mountains must have been a bit of a hike. Our house had plenty of books, including some of my mother’s childhood books and those belonging to my three older sisters. I read them all.

Stories didn’t end with books. I also loved those that my mother made up or the real stories about her childhood in Australia of which I never tired. When I helped my mother with household chores such as washing up, we made up stories with one of us starting and the other taking over. The best story we created went on for weeks about a crazy family who lived in the country and led a rather bohemian life, of which their father’s relations heartily disapproved. The step-mother, who bucked the trend by being nice to her step-children, was called Lorraine but she changed it to Raine as the children were Wood, Heath, Moore, and Brooke and she thought it fitted in better. Father was a little more conventional - I can’t remember if he had a name or not – so we got him out of the way much of the time by sending him abroad to work. 

As I grew older I devoured the children’s classics including two favourites, Little Women and Anne of Green Gables and we would discuss what happened after the stories ended or have conversations about the characters as if they were our neighbours and friends. We especially liked Anne and the inhabitants of Avonlea. These discussions continued as I met the characters in adult classics including Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice.

We often compared our real neighbours to characters. Barbara Pym’s novels teemed with people from our village, which had its share of helpful ladies. We also loved the Mitford autobiographies and novels and happily chatted about Farve aka Uncle Matthew and his frightful rages as well as the sisters’ exploits. How we envied the Hons cupboard as our house had no such cosy delight.

In recent years our book discussions remained one of our favourite subjects in our regular phone-call chats, along with family news. My mother continued to read both fiction and non-fiction – she liked memoirs of interesting people – until the last few weeks of her life. She would often dip into favourite familiars if she felt too tired to tackle something new. It wasn’t so long ago that we visited Tara to have tea with Scarlett and Mammy to see if Rhett had returned. We knew exactly how that story ended – don’t be misled by published sequels.

My mother was also very supportive of my writing, and was pleased about my few modest successes. A couple of years ago she passed me several exercise books of her writings over the years about life on the farm where we lived when my siblings and I were children.  

Of all my memories of her, the literary memories are among my most precious. I'm going to miss our chats about our book friends.


Kathleen Hazel Bamfield, née Stephens. May 1921-January 2017.



Saturday, 14 January 2017

Lit Ward 10 Under Threat.

The Reader by Mary Cassatt, 1877
Dr Read’s blood pressure was far too high. Nurse Gorgeous took off the monitor and hustled him into the miniscule staff room of Lit Ward 10, made him sit down in the only comfortable chair and fetched him several books. ‘You’re not going back on that ward until your blood pressure is down,’ she instructed him. For a moment she thought he was going to argue but he meekly turned to the first page of Decline and Fall, a choice he felt was apt.

After an hour’s reading Nurse Gorgeous checked his blood pressure and was reassured that he was improving but she wasn’t letting him back on the ward. However it was time for an important meeting. She bleeped Dr De Licious who was helping out in the overcrowded admissions ward.

‘Our ward is under threat,’ Dr Read told his staff. ‘The Chief Exec will close us down unless we can come up with a massive savings plan. The surgical ward has had to take three of our beds, and with the pressure they’re under I couldn’t refuse. They’ve had to take Nurse Page too as she’s primarily a surgical nurse. The only reason the Chief Exec hasn’t cut off our funding altogether is our outcomes, which have remained excellent with the exception of that unspeakable man…’ he stopped.

His colleagues knew who he was talking about. The Minister for Health was Lit 10’s only failure. Far from being turned in to a nicer person during his stay on the ward a year ago, he’d become far worse since his discharge. All three felt he deserved to end up in The Hague for crimes against humanity. ‘Article 7, section k,’ muttered Dr de Licious.

They formulated a workable plan. They reluctantly decided that Lit Ward 10 must become a day ward with just two beds on a general ward for those who had other medical needs besides Lit Therapy. They had already established a successful dayroom programme for staff requiring Lit Therapy. Many staff taken ill during shifts had found Lit Therapy prevented further days of sick leave. 

Dr Read had also instigated an out-reach programme to most other wards with great success. The only disadvantage being a number of books they supplied went home with these patients on discharge and were never seen again. However it was a small price to pay and had resulted in the hospital having a much smaller drugs bill. This was the reason the Chief Exec had allowed Lit Ward 10 to carry on at all. He didn’t hold with such nonsense as reading. Far better to give people lots of medication with long complicated names but even he had to acknowledge reading was cheaper and savings were the order of the day.

Nurse Gorgeous found a manager’s office on the second floor that was used for only one hour a week. She requisitioned it for the new Lit Ward 10. The Chief Exec had to admit this was better use of a bright airy office which had several comfortable chairs, a very nice set of fitted shelves containing one book, its own kitchenette and a large walk-in cupboard which would do as a staff room, so long as no more than two people were it in at the same time.     
    
The office was currently used by one of the consultants for her weekly team meeting simply because it was always empty but she agreed to officially relocate to the hot-desk suite (a draughty porta-cabin) but secretly held the meetings in her secretary’s house over the road from the hospital. Nobody knew whose office it was until a cleaner recalled it had belonged to the Chief Exec’s Bright Ideas Manager, who had precisely one idea, then gone on holiday and never returned. No one had missed him in over six months. The single book on the shelf was a copy of How to Get Ideas. Its efficacy seemed in doubt.

The new Lit Ward 10 was ready with a minimum of fuss. It had been nicely decorated six months ago owing to the BIM’s one idea and needed only a few more chairs, a couple of occasional tables and a coffee machine. Dr De Licious and Nurse Gorgeous headed for Ikea after work with a shopping list and some money from the League of Friends.

One of the porters volunteered to relocate the books and equipment from the old ward in his own time. He had once been admitted to Lit Ward 10 after collapsing with exhaustion near the end of an 18 hour shift. He had been put to bed, allowed to sleep for hours on end and awoke to a cup of hot chocolate, breakfast and a copy of The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra which had revived his flagging spirits. Life had been so much better since, even with the long shifts he still had to endure. Besides, Nurse Gorgeous was a smasher. Lovely girl – that Dr de Licious should get on and propose, he thought as he trundled the books to their new home. A copy of Animal Farm fell from the pile. He stopped to replace it.

The following day the patients took their seats in the comfy chairs and opened their books. An atmosphere of peace and content settled over the new room. Letta, the ward’s housekeeper, mixed up her special brew of Jamaican hot chocolate and took it round to the patients and staff. It wasn’t the same as the old ward, which now housed the increasing number of surgical patients from a nearby hospital which had been downsized, but the staff knew they would continue to do a great job in restoring people’s equilibrium and help them cope with the constant messes made by the government and its unspeakable ministers.

A patient brought in a donations box and everybody slipped a few coins or notes in. By the end of the first week there was enough for a number of new books, supplies of hot chocolate and a fresh bottle of gin. The patients knew that they were benefitting from the best NHS medicine in the world and wanted this to remain for perpetuity. Lit Ward 10 would survive – at least for the time being. 

What books would you recommend Nurse Gorgeous buys with the donations?



Thursday, 29 December 2016

Top Ten reads of 2016

Of the 62.5 books I read this year, here are my top 10 reads of 2016 - plus one - in the order in which I read them. They are not all recent; I base my choice on the impact they had on me, those that stay with me. I choose books to make me think, books to make me smile, books to make me cry. This selection has some of each. I had to add the last selection because although I haven't finished it yet I couldn't wait until the end of next year to include it. It might make my best of 2017 as well!

A Song for Issy Bradley - Carys Bray.

My introduction to Carys's writing was a reading one of her short stories on a blog or competition website. It was one of those stories where I thought: ' I wish I'd written that.' I read more of her short stories and knew I had to buy this, her first novel.  A family is struck by tragedy - how does each member cope?

The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion

A lighthearted read but it might help people to see other people more clearly. I loved it.

Hotel Arcadia - Sunny Singh.

Sunny spoke at this year's Finchley Lit Fest - where I interviewed her discussing this, her latest novel about a terrorist attack on a hotel and the reactions of two people involved. This book is in the 'thought provoking' category and is one that deserves a second read.

Anatomy of a Soldier - Harry Parker.

Harry also came to Finchley Lit Fest. He talked about the book and we actually had to persuade him to read bits. It was the opening page that got me. Different, stark and tender it was a gripping and emotional read.  How does a soldier on a tour of duty cope when his life is threatened and turned upside down?

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra - Vaseem Khan.

Another FLF speaker - Vaseem's book is definitely in the make me smile category. I loved it and am looking forward to the next in the series.  Retirement looms for the inspector but he receives a strange gift. Will he accept and is he ready to hang up his badge?

A Cupboard Full of Coats - Yvvette Edwards

Yet another author from FLF, this is Yvvette's first novel. Word has it that her second is every bit as good!  How does a woman come to terms with bereavement and family secrets?

Patchwork Planet  - Anne Tyler

I've read a number of Anne Tyler's books, some I've loved, some not so much. This is one of my favourites.

A Month in the Country - J.L.Carr

This slim classic, bought from a charity shop, had been sitting unread on my bookshelves for years. It was time I remedied that!

No Other Darkness - Sarah Hilary.

Murder and crime stories aren't my usual reading matter but Sarah's books go deeper than many. Dark and disturbing, this one kept me turning the pages. Four books in the Marnie Rome series have now been published and a fifth is underway.

The Year of the Runaways - Sunjeev Sahota

Topical and insightful, this book examines the lives of four people who caught up in illegal immigration. How far would you go to help someone who is desperate?

Owl Song at Dawn - Emma Claire Sweeney

I recently attended a literary evening organised by Emma and Emily Midorikawa. The title of Emma's book intrigued me and I'm very glad a bought a copy! People with disability are overlooked in literature as they often are in life, but not in this novel where they demonstrate strengths as well as the weaknesses we see all too readily.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Christmas cards.

The first Christmas card in 1843.
I love sending and receiving Christmas cards and I still string them up around my living room as we did when I was a child. But when did the Christmas card tradition begin?

The first Christmas card was sent in 1843 by Henry Cole. A great innovator of the nineteenth century, he was instrumental in the re-organisation of the postal services and with Rowland Hill initiated the Penny Post in 1840.
Henry Cole commissioned John Callcot Horsely to design a greetings card to send to his acquaintances wishing them a happy Christmas. 50 cards were originally lithographed by the firm of Jobbins located in Warwick Court in Holborn, London, and were hand coloured by William Mason.

The card was in the form of a triptych with the outer panels depicting 'feeding the hungry' and 'clothing the naked' to remind recipients to remember those less fortunate than themselves. The centre panel showed a family of adults and children all enjoying a glass of wine. This drew a great deal of criticism at the time on the grounds of 'fostering the moral corruption of children.'

Soon the sending of cards became de rigueur for the middle classes. Early cards showed religious themes and the winter scenes we still often see but many featured flowers, animals or fairies and looked forward to the following year with scenes of spring.

Queen Victoria commissioned the first Official Christmas card that same decade - she also sent numerous cards to family members and her servants at Osborne and Windsor.

Charles Goodall & Sons of Camden Town was one of the first companies to produce Christmas cards on a large scale. Designs became very elaborate with decorations of silken fringes or lacy cut-outs while others were shaped like fans, candles or bells.  Pop-up cards would reveal winter scenes such as ice-skating on a mirrored pond.

Robins, still popular today, were featured from the 1850s. As Victorian postmen were nicknamed robins owing to their red uniforms, cards frequently depicted robins delivering cards. Father Christmas began to appear on cards some twenty years later.

In the years leading up the First World War, cards often illustrated inventions of the new century including motor-cycles, aeroplanes and cars. On the outbreak of war in 1914 the government considered banning the sending of greetings cards for security reasons but relented when it was appreciated that contact between soldiers and their families was vital for morale. The Royal Family revived the tradition of sending Christmas cards when the young Princess Mary decided to send every serving soldier and sailor a greetings card and a brass tin containing gifts. Similar boxes were also sent to nurses.

There was a significant increase in the number of cards sent during the war years, which was to be repeated during the Second World War when cards often depicted patriotic themes and symbols such as flags to convey national pride, but those featuring home and hearth were popular too.

The first charity cards are believed to be produced by UNICEF in 1949. Many a charity now relies on income from Christmas cards but to really benefit charities, buy those that are produced by the charity itself rather than those sold through High Street shops where the percentage for charity is often less than 10%.

Canada issued the first Christmas stamps in 1898 but the first UK Christmas stamps were not produced until 50 years ago. In 1966 a competition was set up by Tony Benn, then Postmaster General. Two six year olds won, with a design of a King of the Orient and a snowman respectively.

Royal Mail's recent research shows that most people still prefer to receive actual cards as opposed to e-cards or other social media greetings. I certainly do. Each year at least a couple of people I know announce via social media that they are not sending Christmas cards and giving the money to charity instead. While I totally approve of charity giving I always wonder why it's the sending of cards, that other people would enjoy, that gets dropped rather than some other Christmas tradition. I'd be much more impressed if people announced that they were not buying so much food this year, or were giving up the usual alcohol intake! I've probably been permanently crossed off a list or two now.

Every year I recycle my cards. The Woodland Trust ran a recycling scheme for 14 years with collection points at a number of High Street shops. They recycled over 600 million cards enabling them to plant 200,000 trees. Unfortunately their scheme ended in 2011 but since then Marks and Spencer have collected and recycled cards in support of The Woodland Trust and are doing so again this year.  Sainsbury's also run a card recycling scheme supporting the Forest Stewardship Council. Most council recycling takes cards too although of course they won't be supporting the tree charities. But whichever scheme you choose, please do recycle your cards.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas, and for those that don't celebrate Christmas, I wish you a very happy winter solstice and to all of us a peaceful New Year. May 2017 bring tolerance and kindness.


Some of this article was first printed in The Greenacre Times issue 13 Winter 2009