Noticing things differently – why creative nonfiction is like poetry

Apart from the occasional poem, most of what I write is nonfiction.  Creative nonfiction is a genre which is increasingly discussed – hard to define, but including narrative accounts, personal responses, place writing, reflection and imaginative explorations.  This is what I have written since long before I knew it had a name!

I have long thought that the two forms of writing I engage in – creative nonfiction and poetry – are two sides of the same coin.  That statement may make a bit more sense if I take you back to Wales in 1986, when I first started writing in an intentional way.

In a recent blog post I wrote about being fortunate to be part of a pilot for an A level creative writing course.  The exam board commissioned leading Welsh writers to run creative writing residentials for the students in the pilot because, as most teachers were used to delivering a traditional, Shakespeare-and-the-classics English Literature syllabus, teaching creative writing was something quite new to them.  Six of us from my school travelled with the Head of English, Liz Pugh, to Plas Tan y Bwlch (now the Snowdonia National Park Study Centre) for two days with, amongst others, Gillian Clarke.

A word here about Gillian Clarke.  Now aged 82 and something of a ‘national treasure’ in Welsh cultural life, she had at that point recently published her fourth collection, Selected Poems (although I didn’t read her work until later).  With decades of experience of teaching English and creative writing in schools and colleges, she was the perfect choice to encourage young people to explore the process of writing poetry.  From 2008-2016 she was the National Poet of Wales (the Welsh version of a Poet Laureate), and as well as her award-winning poetry she has created a fine legacy in the form of Ty Newydd, the national writing centre for Wales, which she co-founded in 1990.

Back in 1986, it’s a glorious spring day, with sunshine flooding into the big lecture room at Plas Tan y Bwlch. Huge windows offer panoramic views of the valley and the wooded hills beyond, but we aren’t paying much attention, because Gillian Clarke is speaking.  She has seated us – some 30-odd students aged 16-18 – in a large circle.  She has a basket beside her, and from this she takes a small object, about the size of an egg.  I’m going to pass this round the circle, she says.  Take as long as you like when it comes to you.  What I want you to do is notice.  What do you notice about this object?

The object passes slowly from hand to hand, as each student holds it, turns it over, gazes at it, frowns or nods in recognition, maybe runs a finger over a detail, passes it to their neighbour.  I watch them as the object makes its way to me, about two thirds of the way round the circle.  Then, it is in my hands – feather light, delicate yet curiously strong, like an eggshell.  The size of a small egg, and almost the same shape, with a hooked point at one end.  Smooth, with hollows divided by sharp, paper-thin membranes.  Notice, Gillian had said.  How should I notice?  I have looked at it.  I have turned it over and over and looked at it from all sides.  I have used touch to explore its textures and weight.  I’m not going to taste it!  But there are other senses I could use – maybe, if I hold it to my ear it will sing of the sea, like a shell?  No.  But how about smell?  Tentatively, I lift it to my nose – earthy, organic, and yet almost like stone.  I hear a soft hiss from Gillian – yesss.  I look at it one last time, and pass it to my neighbour.

Afterwards, Gillian tells us about the object – it’s a buzzard’s skull that she found on a walk, and she has written a poem about it.  But, she says, that’s not why she brought it today.  It’s just a way, she says, of getting us to notice things differently.  She mentions that one person went beyond looking and touching by listening and smelling (I squirm with embarrassment at this).  She’s delighted – this is what she was hoping we would do.  Now, she says, go away and write a poem.

As we move away, she calls me back, and we talk about the senses, and how important she thinks it is that a writer should notice differently – from a different angle, using different senses, and without what we think we know about the object getting in the way of our noticing.  She is enthusiastic, encouraging.  I take my notebook to a corner of the terrace and start to write – this is the poem.

The Buzzard’s Skull

This ritual is new, and yet
along the distance of my mind
I know that I remember.
The circle is held, spellbound;
the sacrament is passed from hand to hand:
a ceremony of initiation?

Blindfold and afraid, I hear
the holy word approach,
rhythmic, sinister,
along the chain.
The object is in my hands,
stirring a memory that
my fingers cannot grasp –
a forest or a beach?
My life,
or life that lingers in my mind,
beyond (my) memory?
My fingers’ eyes have been in the dark
so long,
they are blinded by this light,
and cannot see.

Although I never saw Gillian again after that residential, I followed her career and occasionally heard her on the radio.  I know that many writers were encouraged into writing by her, and I am always grateful to her for that hissed yesss that made me realise that I was on the right lines in how I observed the world around me, rather than just being weird.  She made me realise that I was starting to think like a writer.

And like a writer, rather than solely a poet – because the nonfiction I write is also about noticing things differently.   Poetry is about precisely that – a good poem leaves the reader thinking “wow, I never looked at it like that before” and can weave magic around the most familiar and mundane subject.  Creative nonfiction, I would suggest, has a similar role – to explore the homely as well as the exotic, looking with fresh eyes and an unexpected perspective, touching and listening and smelling and tasting, and telling the stories of people, places and objects with new voices.

Cover of Selected Poems Gillian Clarke

 

Books – why I love them, why I buy them, why e-readers are OK, and why libraries are amazing

I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to readers of this blog to find that I love books.  I’m a writer, after all, and I’ve never yet met a writer, in any genre, who didn’t love books.  Not only that, but I spent quite a few years working in academic and public libraries, which was rather like working in a sweetie shop (but less fattening).  I’ve got it bad.

As a child, I didn’t have many books.  We lived in various parts of Europe, and in those pre-internet days (1970s and early 1980s) getting English- or Dutch-language books abroad was pretty much impossible (see my post about being brought up bilingual).  My father would make an annual trip to London to shop at Foyles bookshop, and bring back as many books as he could carry (which wasn’t a lot to last a voracious young reader a whole year).  When we stayed with my Dutch grandparents, I would read their extensive collection of English-language whodunits (my grandmother was severely addicted – her favourites were Dorothy L Sayers, Erle Stanley Gardner and Agatha Christie, in that order) which sowed the seed of a life-long love of classic crime fiction.  I read Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass a dozen times.  When all else failed, I read the Pocket Oxford Dictionary like a novel – there are worse ways to train as a writer.

I may not have had many books, but I knew what I did and didn’t like.  I liked Enid Blyton’s mysteries and adventure stories, but not her more surreal, fantasy output.  I adored Cicely M Barker’s Flower Fairies books, not least because of what they taught me about plants – I can still recall snatches of them when I see wildflowers growing in the hedgerows.  I didn’t care for classic children’s stories like Mary Poppins or Peter Pan, but then, given that I was by that stage already a fan of Lord Peter Wimsey, that’s perhaps not surprising.  I was at best ambivalent about classic novels – to be truthful I still am.  Apart from Persuasion, I am unmoved by Jane Austen.  I appreciate her talent, I just don’t much care for the books.  I found Dickens interesting, but heavy going.  Amongst the Brontë sisters’ output, I liked Wuthering Heights, and once I’d discovered Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea I could see the point of Jane Eyre.  Sherlock Holmes came into my life at the age of 16, and I still re-read those stories when I need something comforting.

In fact, I discovered lots of books at the age of 16, because that’s when we settled in the UK and I started to use libraries.  My school library had virtually no fiction on its shelves, but the local public library was huge, and I systematically stripped the shelves.  I was doing A level English too, so there was Chaucer (yay!), Shakespeare (OK, especially Hamlet and Twelfth Night), D H Lawrence (hmmm), Austen (see above), R S Thomas (dark and melancholy but wonderful), and my beloved Dylan Thomas (with whose work I had fallen in love when I first heard Richard Burton intone the opening lines of Under Milk Wood).  John Donne (sorry, I’m sure it’s great writing but I haven’t got time for this), Wordsworth (lovely but a tad self-indulgent), Tennyson (the less said about that the better), and Keats (lyrical but lengthy), also figured in the syllabus.  I did three A levels, but the only one I can remember in detail is English – I can still quote the odd line here and there.  For light relief I read James Herriot, Gerald Durrell and Robert Louis Stevenson (Kidnapped was possibly my favourite book through my teenage years), and every Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers I could find.

It’s probably no coincidence that I went on to spend many years working in libraries (university and public).  The windows on the world offered to a teenager in a remote Snowdonian town by the presence of a good library were a gift, and I am passionate about the continued provision of public libraries.  Yes, the internet is an amazing repository of knowledge (and misinformation!) but it cannot replace the serendipity of going to the shelf for a book and becoming entranced by its neighbour, which you didn’t know existed and would consequently never have searched for.  As a student, some of my best essays were written using books which weren’t on the reading list (because those had all been borrowed by other students writing the same essay), which meant I had a slightly different slant on the topic.  Being able to access, for free, a huge range of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, is a precious thing and can be truly life-changing for a child whose home is not filled with books or whose family cannot afford to buy them.  Libraries set people free to out-grow their circumstances – just look at Jeannette Winterson.

As soon as I could afford it, I bought books.  I love being surrounded by books in my home, books I can savour at my leisure and don’t have to give back.  I have mixed feelings about bookshops – on the one hand, there is the rush of excitement at being surrounded by so many books, doorways into parallel universes, questioning minds, and illuminating knowledge.  On the other hand, there are so many books that it can feel hard to make a decision about what to buy.  Is it OK to treat myself to this book that I really fancy, even though I don’t actually need it for a course, or for research?  How can I hush the voice in my head that says “Not MORE books!?  You haven’t read the ones you bought last month!”

I have quite a lot of books.  A couple of years ago we downsized massively, and sold hundreds (literally) of books.  For a while, we had just two small bookcases full.  But inevitably, stealthily, the books are taking over again.  “Of course you need that book for your research…Have you read the review for this?  It looks so interesting…Oh look, she’s got a new book coming out next month, shall we pre-order it?…If we buy the paperback it’s easier to share it between us than if we get it on Kindle.”  You get the picture.  Because of where we live, most book purchases are online (using Hive or independent bookshops where possible) and the thump of a book landing on the doormat is so exciting.  All those new words, new ideas, new pictures in my head.  I love having a whole shelf of books I haven’t read yet – so much to look forward to.

Kindle came into my life a decade ago, and I don’t regret it for a moment.  It’s especially good when I go away on holiday, and want to take some light reading with me without lugging heavy books around.  Because it’s hard to flick back and forth inside an e-book, I find it less good for reference books, or indeed non-fiction in general, and my elderly device doesn’t show illustrations well.  I use the app on my smartphone when I’m out and about – on the train, or dining alone.  I often buy the Kindle version of a whodunit which I know I’ll only read once, or if it’s by an author I’m not familiar with and I’m not sure I’ll like it – and I admit that’s because it’s cheaper on Kindle.  But for reading pleasure, the aesthetic experience of words on the page, an attractive cover, and the tactile heft of a book, I’ll choose a ‘real’ book over an e-book every time.  Oh, and let me be clear about this – marking pages or turning down page corners is a sin!

Colour picture of a shelf of books.

 

Working from home – welcome to my world

The recent move towards working from home as a response to the Coronavirus pandemic has flooded the internet with cries for help from people who aren’t coping with it, and advice for how to make it work for you.  The fact that it’s proving so difficult for so many people, and requires so much adaptation, has really flagged up to me how relatively unusual my preferred way of living and working actually is.

First, some disclaimers.  I don’t (any longer) work for a company, where I have to account for my working time at home, be available for virtual meetings during normal office hours, virtually ‘clock on’, and have my productivity monitored.  I appreciate that for many, that’s the kind of working from home you are doing.  Also, I don’t have children, so I’m not attempting to home educate/entertain them 24/7 while simultaneously working.  That must be the stuff of madness, and if that’s your situation, I salute you.   I have not lost my job, and I’ve not been furloughed on reduced salary.  I have the good fortune to have a home that’s large enough not to have to share my workspace with the other inmate, and some (albeit small) outside space.  And above all, we are both well, and I realise that a lot of readers of this blog will be experiencing illness or bereavement and may feel that my comments are shallow and facile.  I’m just writing about how things are for me.

We are sticking diligently to the rules: only going out (singly) once every few days for essentials such as shopping (we’ve not been able to get supermarket delivery slots) and picking up prescriptions, and going out together once a day for a walk in our local area, keeping social distancing when we encounter anyone else.  From that point of view, we’re in the same boat as everyone else in the UK.

What has struck me is how little my life has changed during lockdown.  The main components of my working day are reading, researching online, and writing, with a bit of work-related social media (mostly Twitter) and some of the boring administrative tasks associated with self-employment.  None of that has changed.  I’m still writing, I’m still planning my book and doing research for it, I’m still submitting commissioned articles, I’m still blogging.  My working life is almost totally solitary, and I need it like that to be able to think, to be creative, to make work that I’m happy with.  The only exceptions are when I interview people for a piece I’m writing, or when I do a ‘field trip’ to somewhere I’m going to be writing about, or when I occasionally go on a writing-related course.

Travel, of course, isn’t happening – and frankly that’s the main impact of lockdown on my work, as I was just at the stage when I was going to spend the late spring and summer travelling round the country doing a dozen field trips in preparation for the book.  I’m having to completely re-think how I can use this time to research effectively until such times as I can make those field trips, while hopefully not delaying the completion of the book more than I can help.

Lockdown has demonstrated that there are times when being an introvert is an advantage.  Mostly, it isn’t.  Societally, extraversion is seen as preferable, and introverts are regarded with either pity or suspicion (being perceived as a ‘loner’ isn’t good in our society – being a ‘people person’ or a ‘team player’ is).  I used to feel lesser, like however hard I tried I was never quite good enough because I found being around lots of people knackering rather than stimulating.  To be honest, I find meetings and socialising with groups of people exhausting, I prefer humans in ones and twos (any more, and I long to lie down quietly in a darkened room to recover), and I’m happiest on my own or with one or two carefully chosen people, ideally with a pile of books to lose myself in.  Susan Cain’s book Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking was a revelation.  It isn’t just me – it’s about one third of the human race. It’s OK to be an introvert.  We are not failed extraverts – we are successfully, happily introverts – well, we’re happy and successful if we’re allowed to live and work in ways that allow us to thrive.  Don’t put me in a noisy, busy open-plan office with a dozen other people and expect me to be productive and creative.  And certainly don’t expect me then to be sociable in the evenings or at weekends – that’s when I need peace and quiet to recover from being all peopled-out during the working day.  I know there’s a lot of concern about the impact of social media on people’s mental health, but for me it’s been a boon – I can keep in touch with people, in my own time and when I’m in a place to welcome and enjoy it, rather than getting peopled-out by socialising.  I have joined online groups of people with shared interests, and I love it – for me, it’s the best of both worlds.

It also means that during lockdown I’m in the fortunate position of not missing the stimulation of colleagues and friends around me.  People I’m collaborating with for work are still there, via email, phone, social media or Zoom, as are my friends.  I’m sorry that a couple of large events and conferences, which I had geared myself up for because the content was sufficiently interesting to make it worth the crowds, have been cancelled – but it’s the content, rather than the buzz, that I miss.  I’m just getting on with what I do every day: reading, researching, writing, pitching to commissioning editors, keeping up to date with the writing industry, invoicing.  When I’m not working, I’m going on my daily walk, reading, knitting, planning weaving projects, spinning, weaving, playing with my camera, baking.

Actually, that is one thing that is different because of lockdown – I am baking more than usual.  Going out for coffee and cake is one of our favourite treats, and as the cafés are closed, I’ve stepped into the breach and baked cakes and cookies, scones and parkin.  Fortunately we had just acquired a coffee machine, so at least we have decent coffee while we can’t go out!

Photograph of scones with butter and jam

Writing about writing, and why I find it difficult

In the course of research for a recent writing commission, I have been reading a number of writers’ websites, their biogs on their publishers’ websites, and interviews with writers.  In these, they talk about their ‘practice’ (their writing process and rationale), their formative influences, and the philosophy underpinning what and how they write.  It’s been interesting, and was necessary in order to write my piece, but the experience has left me feeling more awkward than ever about something I have long struggled with.

Judging by the feedback I get, a lot of readers of this blog enjoy reading about the writing process.  But I find it so difficult to write about!  Talking this through with my partner the other day, I described it as being “a bit like asking someone to talk about why and how they breathe.  You just do it!”

OK, if you are a singer you will want to do breathing exercises, and learn techniques to manage your breathing and make it work for you so as to be as expressive as possible in your singing.  But, basically, you just do it.  And you can’t imagine life without it.  Writing has always been like that for me – I’ve just done it, and can’t imagine not doing it.  I read books and go on courses to learn new skills and techniques, but I’m not learning how to do it – I just do it.

I know I could read and write in Dutch by the age of 5, because that’s when my English-medium education started, and I was hugely frustrated by the vagaries of the language after nice, regular, phonetic Dutch.  But I know that by 7 I was writing my own books, keeping a diary, and devouring chunks of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary.  I wrote stories, poems, and lengthy pieces on natural history, accompanied by full-colour diagrams of leaves and dissected flowers.  By 8 or 9, I was torn about what I wanted to be – a private detective or a writer.

Although I excelled at English language, it was history I really loved, and which in some shape or form I’ve continued to study ever since.  I did ‘A’ level English, though, and was lucky enough to be able to do a pilot of a very progressive (for the mid 1980s) syllabus which included a large creative writing component.  My work was chosen for inclusion in a collection produced by the exam board to be used by teachers and students as an exemplar.  I got a good grade, my longstanding inability to write a decent literature essay more than compensated for by my facility with writing and practical criticism (the latter now coming in useful when writing reviews!).  But although my teacher was enthusiastic about my writing, the message from home and school was clear – you can’t make a living from writing, so do something else.  Interestingly, not one of us went on to study English at university.

Alongside academic essays and dissertations, I continued to write poetry for some years, and a series of jobs gave me opportunities to write across a range of genres: manuals, reports, press releases, newspaper articles, courses and training materials, strategy documents, and for the last decade or so, web content.  Writing was rarely in the job description, but was always a necessary aspect of the work and somehow I managed to subvert things so that it became a major part of the role.  For the last few years I have also been writing commissioned work alongside the day job, and now I’m writing full time, a mixture of commissions, blogging, and working on my first book.

I have from time to time thought about enrolling on a creative writing degree course, but for a couple of reasons I have decided not to.  Firstly, almost all syllabuses are designed for people who want to write novels.  I don’t want to write novels.  I quite like reading them, especially if they are historical or whodunits, but my mind doesn’t work that way and I can’t imagine dwelling within an imagined, parallel universe for the time it takes to research and write a novel.  It’s not that I don’t have an imagination (I do, a very vivid one, which is particularly visual), but I like to start with something factual, often historical, and maybe give a slightly different slant on it.  What story could this object tell?  How might it have felt to be in that place at that time?  Modules on plot and characterisation don’t seem very relevant to me.  The courses which aren’t about novels are generally about poetry, and whilst I do write poetry from time to time, it’s not my passion in the way that non-fiction is.

Secondly, it would mean a commitment of at least a year, full time.  I’m not sure that I can justify that at my age.  It’s not as if I don’t already have a track record of writing, and of getting commissions.  I’m not saying that I’ve got nothing to learn – there’s always more to learn – but I’m not sure that, even if I could find a course that was relevant, it would be the best use of a year of my life.

I can’t conceive of not writing.  It’s as natural for me as breathing, which is why I find it so hard to describe what I do, my ‘practice,’ and why although I’m rigorous about my structure, use of language, tone, and so on, and edit ruthlessly, I find it difficult to create literary-sounding biogs about how and why I write.  I’m interested in places, things, people – especially, but not exclusively, historical.  I always want to know why (this used to drive my family nuts when I was little!).  And then I want to use words to share what I’ve discovered.  Quite apt for the little girl who couldn’t decide whether to be a private detective or a writer!

It’s a process which is often quite solitary, but where the finished product potentially reaches many, many people, including many whom I will never meet.  In much the same way as I weave – first researching the design inspiration and the properties of the materials, then creating the design, then exploring the technical aspects of the piece, then making it – I craft the words on the page into a shape which I am happy with, and which I hope others will find stimulating, interesting or enjoyable.  Just as not everyone is going to like my tapestries, not everyone will like what I write, but as long as I’m pleasing some of the people some of the time, I’m happy!

Photograph of a woven tapestry of a seascape, entitled Lundy 1 by Lisa Tulfer

Lundy 1 by Lisa Tulfer. Woven tapestry, 3×3 inches.

Planting a herb garden – history, food and wellbeing

Now that there is some warmth in the spring sunshine, I have planted a herb garden.  It’s a very small herb garden – a vintage Belfast sink and a couple of pots – but it’s attractive and will serve my purposes.

The Belfast sink has been empty over the winter – when we moved house last autumn we emptied out the old herbs which were well past their best, ready for fresh ones this season.  It’s lovely to see it fully planted up, beside the back door so that it’s in easy reach of the kitchen, in a corner which is a suntrap.  The challenge is to remember the watering!

Colour photograph of a Belfast sink planted with herbs, and a green watering can.

The choice of herbs for sale was a bit limited so early in the year, but the plants were in very good condition, and there’s room to pop a couple more into the gaps later in the season if I find some.  I chose two purple sages, one oregano, and two thymes (one gold, one silver).  The sages will grow quite tall, so I put them at the back, with the oregano in the middle, and the thymes at the front.  They will spread, and be able to trail over the edge of the sink.  I also bought Moroccan mint, and a medium-sized rosemary – as mint is invasive and would take over the whole sink given half a chance, and as rosemary grows large and is long lived and will soon outgrow the sink, I have put each in a separate pot.  Ideally I’d also have some chives and some tarragon, although I’ve never had much luck with growing the latter, and maybe some flatleaf parsley (which I use where recipes call for coriander, which I don’t like).

Growing herbs has a long and venerable tradition.  Used for thousands of years for culinary, medicinal and ritual purposes, they have been an enduring part of human civilisation and their cultivation is an international phenomenon.  Much of what we know in the West about herbs and their uses was written down by medieval monks who grew herbs in the physic gardens of their abbeys, and a significant proportion of modern medicines have their origins in herbal compounds, so growing them today feels like connecting with the past.

So what of the herbs in my garden?  Let’s look at their history, uses and properties.

Sage

Its Latin name, Salvia, comes from salvare, to cure, so its medicinal reputation is long-established.  It has been used to treat sore throats and digestive problems.  Clinical trials in 2011 suggested that sage’s reputation of being helpful in the menopause may have scientific backing, as a trial reported its effectiveness in reducing hot flushes.  Originating in the Mediterranean area, sage is grown around the world, thriving in warm sunny locations – so my suntrap by the back door should suit it well.

Perhaps best known in Britain for its role in sage and onion stuffing, sage is strongly-flavoured and I use it a lot in casseroles, as well as torn up and tossed with buttered pasta.  Being a ‘lady of a certain age’, I also drink it as a tea (although as I’ve only had the plants a few weeks, it’s too early to report an improvement in symptoms!).

Oregano/marjoram

Another native of the Mediterranean (this time the Middle East), this is also a sun-lover.  Its antiseptic qualities made it a medieval cure-all, and the first settlers to New England took this herb with them.  I like it with chicken, fish, or pasta, and it is delicate enough not to swamp subtly-flavoured foods.  To me, this is a real sunshine herb – just crushing the leaves and sniffing your fingers will give you a lift.

Thyme

Prescribed by the 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper as a treatment for whooping cough in children, thyme has long been regarded as having antiseptic properties and being useful in respiratory conditions.  It’s a staple culinary herb (although incredibly fiddly to prepare, as you need to strip the tiny leaves from the woody stems) and gives a fresh, warm flavour which is hard to beat.  Pretty much all ‘mixed herbs’ include dried thyme, but it’s less potent when used fresh and partners well with rosemary, oregano and sage.

Mint

The Moroccan mint I’m growing is a kind of spearmint, so it’s warm in flavour rather than cool peppermint.  Its culinary uses are almost endless – salads, mint sauce, cakes, desserts, cold drinks, and mint tea, for example.  Humans have used mint for a long time – it has been found in Egyptian pyramids dating from 1000 BCE, and the Greeks and Romans used it – but curiously it only came into widespread use in Western Europe as late as the 18th century.  Medicinally, it has been used to aid digestion, and specifically to deal with wind, which may be the reason for the popularity of after dinner mints!

Rosemary

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” said Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Since antiquity rosemary has been believed to help strengthen the memory, and it is still used in Greece in the homes of those preparing for exams.  Another herb which likes hot, dry conditions, rosemary has a pungent, invigorating flavour and aroma – and the white, lilac or blue flowers are adored by bees and other insects.  I have always grown rosemary, and use it generously in cooking.  The traditional partner is, of course, roast lamb, but I use it (either as whole sprigs, removed before serving, or finely chopped) in almost anything that’s going to be cooked for a while – casseroles especially.

Photograph of a chopping board with chopped herbs and a large kitchen knife.

Whilst the whole ‘grow your own’ phenomenon may require more space, time and energy than many of us have available in 21st century Britain, it’s possible to have a herb garden in the smallest of spaces – in a pot or in a window box, or even indoors on a windowsill at a pinch.  And nothing beats the pleasure of cooking with herbs that you have grown and harvested yourself.

 

Marking time

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am fascinated by history, and in particular ordinary people and how they lived their lives in the past.  I am especially drawn to explore and respond to objects and artefacts – the more domestic the better.   My friend Gina also knows this, and she told me the story of her clock.  I’m grateful to her for allowing me to write it up and share it with you.

Gina has a clock.  It’s a longcase clock, the kind that is usually called a Grandfather clock.  Nothing very unusual about that, you might think, except that the mechanism (and probably the case) of this particular clock is 200 years old – and for most if not all of that time it has belonged to generations of Gina’s family.

Image of clock face with roman numerals and fanciful birds above.

The family story, Gina tells me, is that they have owned it from when it was first made by John Wreghit of Patrington, Yorkshire.  I have done some research, and have found that John Wreghit (sometimes Wreghitt) was born around 1769 and died in 1845.  He is buried in the churchyard of St Patrick’s Church, Patrington.  He was apprenticed to Edward Hardy, clock and watchmaker of Kingston upon Hull, in December 1785, and in due course he himself took on an apprentice, John Potchit, in March 1801.  An apprenticeship lasted 7 years.  John Wreghit is listed as a watch and clock maker in trade directories between 1801 and 1841. In 1798 he married Ann Hopper.  It seems their son James followed his father into the clockmaking trade, before dying in 1831 at the young age of 29.  John and Ann had a number of children, not all of whom survived into adulthood – they reputedly had 9 daughters,   one of whom, Margaret, married a John Rank.  Margaret and John Rank’s grandson was Joseph Rank, who founded one of the largest flour milling and bakery companies in the UK in the 19th and 20th centuries, and which survived as part of Rank Hovis McDougall until 2007.  Joseph Rank was a significant philanthropist, and was father to the even more famous J Arthur Rank.

The early years of the clock’s life are not recorded, but it is known to have been in Gina’s family by the beginning of the 20th century.  Gina remembers the clock “when I was knee high”, when it was owned by her Great Aunt Ada (her grandmother’s sister) and Great Uncle Albert.  “He was an ancient and very grumpy old man in a chair when I knew him – he must have been in his eighties when I was tiny.  They lived in a prestigious street in Hull.”

Early 20th century black and white wedding photograph

Ada and Albert’s wedding photograph has been handed down to Gina, and she now has it framed and displayed next to the clock.  The clock itself has been recently restored, and now ticks and chimes at the heart of Gina’s home.

Gina often thinks of what the clock has witnessed in the past two centuries.  It has marked births, and deaths.  Family members will have checked the time in trepidation, and in hope, as it measured the significant events and everyday rhythms of their lives.  Time will have seemed to crawl on dull days, or before some eagerly-awaited event, or flown by during family celebrations.  The clock will have made sure that children got to school, and grown-ups to work, on time.  The chimes will have counted down the hours during sleepless nights, and chivvied the tardy along by day.  The clock will have been the beating heart of a succession of family homes.

And now, each tick and chime connects Gina with the people, her kin, who stand behind her through those past two centuries.  I wonder if John Wreghit, as he crafted its mechanism in the days before Queen Victoria, could ever have imagined the significance and legacy his craftsmanship would have.

My notebook habit – confessions of a stationery addict

A few days ago, my friend Cath posted a photograph of a notebook on Twitter, with this caption: ”I know I’m not alone (I’m not, am I): just re-found this, which I bought at the Design Museum in January: it’s the MOST beautiful notebook I think I’ve ever seen…and I’m so terrified of ‘spoiling’ it that I’ve kept it in the bag it came in!”

Her next post included video of her turning the pages of this really rather wonderful notebook, intriguingly entitled Grids and Guides: a notebook for visual thinkers.   It set me thinking: no, Cath, you’re not alone!  I’ve always been ridiculously excited by stationery and I’m totally susceptible to a nice new notebook.

Writers have a particular ‘thing’ about notebooks, it seems.  I often see posts on Twitter about writers and their notebooks.  I recently attended a course at the National Centre for Writing where the joining notes included instructions to ‘bring a favourite notebook’.  The writer Tom Cox’s next book is actually entitled Notebook!  He encouraged people to tweet pictures of their current notebooks, and I responded with this picture.

Picture of three notebooks.

It shows the three notebooks I am currently using.  The dark green one with the coloured tabs is the one I am using for notes for my book.  Each tab relates to a chapter, which I’m hoping will help me to keep my research notes in some kind of order!  It’s made of vegan leather, by a company called Dingbats, and has an embossed deer on the front.  The paper is lovely: thick, cream, and lined, and the endpapers have a funky print of deer hoofprints.

The brown one is by Clairefontaine, a French company which I’d not heard of before I was given this notebook.  Its pages are cream and very smooth, a real pleasure to write on.  It has numbered pages and a contents page, which is very useful as I use this to write down my ideas for various articles and projects, and it’s good to be able to see at a glance where they are, rather than spending ages flicking through the book.  I used to be a Moleskine loyalist, but having tried Clairefontaine, I think I’ll be sourcing more of these in future.

This brings me to the black notebook – an extra large Moleskine soft cover with plain cream pages and a useful pocket in the back for cards and loose papers.  This one is used for ‘professional’ notes – notes from training courses and books on professional and commercial aspects of writing for a living.  Moleskine make nice large notebooks, and these soft cover ones stay flat and open when in use, which is great for making notes in meetings.

All three have elastic bands to keep them securely closed when not in use.  The Dingbats one also has an elastic loop to hold a pen.

Ah – don’t get me started on pens.   I adore pens.  And coloured marker pens for planning and mind mapping.  And fountain pens.  And my latest passion, which is propelling pencils.  I’ve always found them a bit scratchy, but I recently discovered a Pentel which has a 1.3mm lead (my previous one was 0.5mm) which makes a lovely soft, thick, dark mark and is comfortable for taking extended notes.  I’m now using that pencil far more than pens, and am more than a little in love!

And then of course there are notepads, and sticky notes in all the colours of the rainbow and all sizes from postage stamp to A5, and staplers, and paperclips, and polypockets, and folders, and subject dividers, and ring binders, and box files (did you know they come in A5 as well as A4 sizes?!), and index cards (plain and lined, white and coloured, standard and large), and envelopes, and good old-fashioned letter paper, and laid paper and wove paper and handmade paper and mulberry paper and…

OK, OK, you get the idea.  Let me loose in any stationers, or with an office supplies catalogue, and serious expenditure will result.  My name is Lisa Tulfer and I am a stationery addict.  I’m more restrained than I used to be, and I succumb to temptation less often – except when it comes to notebooks.  Granted, they are a tool of my trade.  This is how I justify buying them when I see them – I currently have an entire storage box full of notebooks waiting to be used.  The last twice we’ve been away for a few days I have returned with a new notebook – a gloriously purple one (it’s my favourite colour – how could I resist?) from the gift shop at Tintern Abbey, and a monastic garden themed one from the English Heritage gift shop at Rievaulx Abbey.  I have lined notebooks, plain notebooks, spiral bound notebooks, fabric covered notebooks.  Every new project gets a notebook, so a good supply of attractive notebooks ensures a good supply of new projects!

So, to get back to Cath, I can assure her that she isn’t alone.  Appreciation for a good notebook (and a tendency to buy them even if you haven’t a clue what you will use them for), is a ‘thing’ which many of us share.  And in these difficult times, if we can find pleasure in a simple notebook, that seems like a good thing.

Cath runs the most wonderful gift shop and gallery called Ginger Fig.  It’s in Bath Place, Taunton, Somerset, UK.  You can contact her on Twitter @gingerfig, on Instagram @gingerfig and on her website.

 

Today is not World Book Day

Yesterday was World Book Day.  For various reasons which I won’t bore you with, I managed not to realise this until the evening, by which time it was a bit late to blog about it/post #shelfie pictures on Twitter along with the rest of the reading and writing community.

But it set me thinking.  One of the commissioning editors for whom I write a lot often commissions articles about World/International Days, and the range of topics I’ve researched and written about over the past few years is amazing.  I thought I would share a few of them with you.

International Women’s Day (Sun 8 March 2020)

This day has been around for a long while – it was first marked in 1911, and initially focussed on women’s right to work without discrimination.  Inevitably, it soon also started to campaign for women’s right to vote.  Following the day’s adoption by the feminist movement in the 1960s, the United Nations declared it an International Day in the 1970s.  It continues to raise awareness of issues affecting women around the world, which we might have hoped would have been addressed by now: inequality and discrimination, the impact of war and displacement, sexual violence, and the lack of access to education.

World Day Against Child Labour (Fri 12 June 2020)

A more recent development is World Day Against Child Labour, which started in 2002.  Its focus is the global extent of child labour, and the campaign to eliminate it.  The 2015 Sustainable Development Goals include a global commitment to end “child labour in all its forms” by 2025, but currently over 200 million children around the world work, many full-time.  This matters, not only because it deprives them of the chance to be children and to play, but because it means that they are denied the opportunity to go to school, and traps them in a cycle of poverty.  In the West we probably think of child labour in terms of having a paper round, or being a child actor, with legal protections in place.  Worldwide, however, 70% or working children work in agriculture, often hard and dangerous work.

World Bee Day (Wed 20 May 2020)

With so much publicity for the pollinator crisis over the past few years, we can’t fail to be aware that there’s so much more to bees than honey.  Until I began researching for this article, though, I hadn’t appreciated that as much as a third of world food production depends on bees for pollination.  This makes it very worrying that 10% of bee species worldwide are facing extinction.  Although there is dispute about what is causing the decline in bees, with possible culprits being the varroa mite, other viruses, diseases and pests, climate change, and neonicotinoid pesticides, the statistics suggest that bee numbers are down by a third in the USA, with significant losses being reported elsewhere including Europe.

It’s not all doom and gloom though – this is one area of environmental crisis where ordinary people like you and I can make a difference.  Bee-friendly gardening, providing bees with flowers which yield plentiful and easily-accessed nectar, can help to boost the health and numbers of these essential creatures, whose future survival is so closely entwined with our own.

World Braille Day (Mon 4 January 2021)

On this day in 1809, Louis Braille was born in France.  He was blinded by a childhood accident, but applied his intellect to the problems he faced, and by the age of 15 had created a system for reading and writing.  A system of military night-writing had been developed by Charles Barbier, at Napoleon’s request, to provide a tactile way for soldiers to communicate silently and without a light source.  It consisted of sets of dots which encoded sound.  Louis adapted this into a matrix of ‘cells’ of raised dots, 3 high by 2 wide, which can be used to read (and, with the right equipment, to write) in any language.

World Braille Day was declared by the United Nations to celebrate the system’s role in giving independence to people who are blind and visually impaired, and to encourage its use.  Sadly, there is a world shortage of trained Braille teachers, and Braille writing equipment is expensive.  Some years ago I was able to get funding to produce a Braille version of an adult education programme I had developed, but was saddened that so many users said this was the first time they had been able to take part in learning on an equal basis with their sighted colleagues.  I found that public bodies and businesses rarely use Braille to make their premises and services independently accessible to blind and partially sighted users – often the only place you will encounter Braille is on the buttons in the lift.

World Toilet Day (Tues 19 November 2020)

This day is particularly dear to my heart – having had IBS for 30 years, I have a personal interest in the provision of toilet facilities, and am the proud owner of a RADAR key which has come to my rescue many times.  I know how lucky I am to live in a country where flush toilets are the norm, widely available, and safe.

However, despite the United Nations declaring in 2010 that access to sanitation and water is a human right, over a third of the world’s population still doesn’t have access to a safe toilet.  Over a billion have no toilet at all.  Amazingly, more people own a mobile phone than have access to a toilet.

This lack of safe toilets has enormous implications worldwide.  Firstly, there are the health implications, with diseases such a cholera and dysentery being spread because of inadequate sanitation, and untreated sewage contaminating the environment and the food chain.  Secondly, one fifth of schools have no toilet facilities, effectively preventing girls from attending once they start menstruating.  And thirdly, women who have no alternative but to engage in ‘open defecation’, especially after dark, are vulnerable to attack and rape.  World Toilet Day seeks to address a subject which can be taboo or socially unacceptable, but which is really about basic human rights.

A number of organisations are involved in providing toilets where they are most needed.  One which I have supported is WaterAid – see https://www.wateraid.org/uk/the-crisis/toilets for more details.

 

Writer’s block – can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it!

There’s a book by Michael Rosen called We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.  If you have had anything to do with small people in the last 25 years, there’s a high chance you’ll have come across it.  When faced by each new obstacle, the characters sing ‘we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ve got to go through it!’

I have been reminded of this refrain recently.  I usually write fluently and easily (editing is more of a pain for me than actually writing), but one particular commission has been causing me a problem.  Writer’s block is a well-known phenomenon – the curse of the blank page.  Block can take many forms – I refer to my two main ones as ‘research paralysis’ and ‘if I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here’.

Research paralysis

I’m one of those people who want to know everything it’s possible to know about a subject.  As a student, I felt very anxious about starting an essay if I didn’t feel I’d read every book and article available on the topic.  This is, of course, unrealistic.  Yes, research is important.  Especially if much of your subject matter is historical, as mine is, it’s vital to understand both the subject and the context, and in particular to avoid the heinous crime of being anachronistic – introducing ideas or objects that didn’t exist yet in the period you are writing about.  And if you are writing about living people, you need to get your facts right, and you can’t do that without research, lots of it, and using your critical faculties about what you are finding in your research.

However, the trick is to stop researching at some point, and start writing.  I find this difficult!  There’s always ‘just one more’ book, article or website that looks so interesting, and which might just yield that extra fact or perspective that would make all the difference to the piece you’re writing.  It takes a fair bit of confidence to say ‘OK, I now know enough about this to write a robust, accurate and informative piece on the subject’.  When is it ‘enough’?

If I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here

This is a reference to an apocryphal tale, sometimes set in Ireland or Scotland, where a tourist asks a local for directions to somewhere and is told ‘if I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here’.    Mostly I enjoy specific writing commissions, but occasionally it can feel as if I don’t know where to start.  Sometimes it can be about the format not matching the topic (‘write about this huge topic in 200 words’), or the style being inappropriate to the content (‘write about this complex argument, requiring lots of specialist knowledge and vocabulary, in a chatty tabloid style’).  Not doing it isn’t an option – I’m a writer, this is my job, I’m being paid to do it.  I can make lots of cups of coffee, go for a walk round the block, do the laundry, compulsively check Twitter, but the problem isn’t going to go away.

Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it!

I’ve developed a few strategies for dealing with writer’s block.  One is to write – anything, not necessarily related to thing I’m supposed to be writing, but just writing – simply to get the writing muscles exercised and moving again.  Often, something will shift and the block will be removed.

Another is to go back and re-read the brief.  Have I understood it wrongly?  Is there some other way of approaching this?  If all else fails, can I get the reader to collaborate with me in wrestling with this topic?  For example, ‘I’ve been asked to write about X, but I didn’t know where to start, so first I tried looking at it from this point of view… what do you think?  Then I tried if from this other perspective… how about this?’

Having a lot of different projects on the go at once is, I find, hugely helpful with writer’s block.  If one article or post is not happening for me, there’s usually something else that’s going well, and it’s amazing how often one project will provide the solution to a block in another.  The human brain is an amazing thing.  And writer’s block must never be allowed to become permanent.  If you can’t go over it, and can’t go under it, you’ve got to go through it!

Going Dutch again: reclaiming my bilingual heritage

I have just finished reading my first ever book in Dutch.  More precisely, my first ever book of fiction for adults – as a child I read many children’s books in Dutch, some of which I still have.  The book in question is not exactly literary – it’s a yellowing, fragile paperback entitled De Cock en de wurger op zondag (De Cock and the Sunday strangler), by A C Baantjer, published in 1965, and it is a police procedural whodunit.  Nevertheless, this is a big thing for me.

Ironically, I learned to read and write Dutch a year or more before learning to read and write English.  I am half Dutch, half British.  When I was small, we lived with my Dutch grandparents (Oma and Opa) in the Netherlands, and my parents decided that the best way to bring me up bilingual was for them to speak English to each other and to me, while I would hear Dutch all around me and would converse in Dutch with the wider family.  This worked well – by the age of 5 I was completely bilingual verbally, and I learned to read and write Dutch easily – it’s phonetic, very regular, and pleasingly logical most of the time.

There is a myth that if you bring up a child bilingual, it will be confused, will mix up the languages and be held back in its language development.  This is, in my opinion, rubbish.  I knew full well which language was which, and which language was used with to communicate with which person.  For example, my (British) father’s Dutch was appalling – I remember being embarrassed by how bad it was, and wishing he would stick to English.  I only borrowed from the other language when the one I was using didn’t have the exact word I was looking for, e.g. there is no English word to translate ‘gezellig’ (it’s a bit like the Danish ‘hygge’ which is so trendy at the moment, but with more sociable connotations – see what I mean about there being no English word for it?!).  I could switch effortlessly between the two, and thought and dreamed in either language.

Moreover, I am convinced that a bilingual start makes it easier to learn subsequent languages.  There appears to be something about understanding from the very beginning that there’s more than one set of sounds and language that makes the acquisition of a new set of language skills less challenging than it seems to be for those raised monoglot.  I went on to learn French, Spanish, a bit of German, a bit of Welsh, some Hebrew, and beginners Latin, all with very little effort  – I am convinced that learning more than one language to begin with makes it easier to learn subsequent languages, and I consider that being brought up bilingual was a great gift.

When I was 5, two things happened.  Firstly, we left the Netherlands.  Secondly, I started my education through the medium of English (starting with learning to read and write English, which was way harder than Dutch as it’s so irregular – in fact, it’s so irregular there seem to be more bits of the language that break the ‘rules’ than follow them!).  I was home schooled, something I have very mixed feelings about, and until I was preparing for public examinations I was taught by my father.  My parents continued to speak English to each other, and to me, and because our lives were (for reasons I won’t go into here) nomadic and we were not well integrated into the countries we lived in, I was heavily influenced by the BBC World Service (and the radio was on for much of the day), so that what I was hearing every day was formal standard British English.

My mother was Dutch, and (in common with many of her compatriots of that generation) had been educated to school leaving standard in English, French and German as well as Dutch.  Her accent was near perfect in all three languages – no one ever guessed she was foreign, they simply assumed she was from a different part of their own country that they couldn’t quite identify!  She lived in Scandinavia for some years, and was fluent in Swedish and had a good command of the notoriously difficult Finnish.  She learned Malay in her colonial youth, a smattering of Spanish when we lived in Spain for a while, and Welsh in her old age.

My father’s family were Liverpool Welsh, and were of the generation who felt that it would disadvantage their children if they spoke Welsh, so although Welsh was spoken at home, he lost it as soon as he started going to school, and sadly was not able to pass it on to me.  He did not have a Welsh accent, though, and neither did he sound ‘Scouse’ – his accent was more the very precise, formal tones of the (probably fairly well educated ) first language Welsh speaker, from North Wales or metropolitan Cardiff, speaking English.  If you’re not familiar with it, it probably sounds like rather ‘posh’ English – something I am often accused of being!

Growing up, I really only spoke Dutch to my grandparents.  My main writing practice was regular letters to them, and no one seems to have thought to buy me Dutch books after the age of 7 or 8.  When I was in my late teens and at school in the UK, it seemed sensible to do an ‘O’ level in Dutch, as it was a painless way of getting another qualification.  I revised for that by reading a couple of old copies of Libelle and Margriet, women’s magazines, which were sent over for me by family in the Netherlands.  I found the exam ridiculously easy, and got an A grade.

Fast forward 30 plus years.  My Dutch-speaking family are long gone.  It’s been 30 years since I visited the Netherlands, as I only went to visit family.  Because I never spoke Dutch as an adult, and didn’t go to school there, my vocabulary was childish and old fashioned – not only because I haven’t been around to pick up contemporary idioms, but because I learned my Dutch from elderly, formal and middle-class grandparents who didn’t really do slang and idiom!  I had reached the stage when I was too nervous to engage in conversation with Dutch people I encountered here in the UK – knowing it would take too long to get my brain in gear, saddened that I was no longer fluent or bilingual.

Enter my partner, who announced a couple of years ago that she wanted to learn Dutch – not least to encourage me to engage with it again, and stop me losing it altogether.  She is making good progress, although as we are not currently following any one course of study, it’s a bit erratic and her vocabulary is random and eccentric (she knows the Dutch for ‘volunteer’ (vrijwilliger) but not ‘plate’ (bord), for example!  For a British person, her pronunciation  is quite good – she’s inevitably struggling with ‘sch’ as in Scheveningen, but it’s coming on nicely.   She follows the exploits of the Dutch royal family on Twitter, which gives her not only a nice bit of translation and comprehension practice in fairly correct Dutch, but also glimpses of Dutch culture.   We are planning to visit the Netherlands soon.  I am very nervous about this, because somehow I feel I ought to know all about it, how the transport system works, how to book things, what the rules of the road are, etc because I’m half Dutch – but of course I don’t, because I didn’t grow up there and have never been there as an adult, having to engage with such things.  I am simultaneously native and a foreigner, which is very confusing.

However, what I am very excited about is my reclaiming of the Dutch language.  With my partner’s encouragement, I have been reading Dutch on the internet, subscribing to Dutch language magazines online (who knew that you could get National Geographic in Dutch?!), watching YouTube clips of Dutch comedians, and have joined a Facebook group for Dutch people living in the UK.  Half my Facebook feed is now in Dutch, and a couple of months ago I realised that I am now back to just reading Dutch, rather than translating it into English first.  I’m not yet thinking or dreaming in Dutch again, but I suspect that might happen if I was in the Netherlands, hearing it around me all the time.  I have to look up some words in the online dictionary, but generally I’m surprising myself how rarely that happens.  Bit by bit, I am becoming bilingual again.

And then, just before Christmas, I happened to glance at the second hand books table in my local supermarket – and amongst all the chic lit and gardening books I spy De Cock en de wurger op zondag – so of course I had to buy it!