I enjoyed Wendy Steele’s The Naked Witch. It is an undemanding read with an easy to follow but convincing plot-line which runs smoothly throughout the story. This is a cross genre book, a mixture of romance and mystery threaded through with magic and witchcraft. I was particularly fascinated by these latter themes and often stopped to re-read these sections; to ponder on them and the way the protagonist was epitomised by them. On the one hand Lizzie Martin is a woman who is trying to grapple with all that life throws at her: initially unexplained difficulties within her work life, complicated struggles with her ex-husband, anxieties for an ex, but still beloved, mother-in-law, worries for a teenage daughters growing maturity. All juxtaposed with an intriguing sub plot, the truth about her father’s death. The strength of this character lies with her beliefs in the goddess that guides her and in her ability to take and centre energy in herself from the earth.
And, just as Lizzie is rounded and multi-layered so are the supporting characters. I had empathy and liking for some and instant dislike for others; a true sign of strong characterisation for me.
The descriptions of the settings: Spain, Lizzie’s home, workplace, her Sanctuary give a good sense of place.
The dialogue is believable. It is clear who is speaking and, mostly, carries the story along. I say mostly because, occasionally, and only occasionally, I felt. It slowed things down by slight repetition. In much the same way that some of the descriptions of food did in parts. I did find myself, every now and again, skipping over the sections where meals were reported. And, in a couple of places the narrative moved a little too quickly from one scene to another.
But these are small grumbles. I loved the lovely conversational style of the author’s writing, the humour that lightens the tone, the interesting insight to white witchcraft and enchanting mystical happenings. Most of all I loved the story.
I recommend The Naked Witch; it’s a good read.
Lizzie Martin’s new boss has asked her to ‘bare all’ and become more corporate.
For Lizzie, swapping paisley for pin stripe is like asking a parrot to wear pea hen.
She has to choose between her job and her integrity, cope with an unexpected stay in hospital, monitor her fourteen year old daughter’s latest crush, continue seeking the truth about her father’s death and juggle two new men in her life.
There is hope though.
At the bottom of the garden is a little wooden shed that Lizzie calls Sanctuary. Within its warm and welcoming walls, Lizzie surrounds herself with magic.
About the Author:
In 1972, Wendy Steele came home from the Tutankhamun exhibition and wrote about her experience, beginning a writing journey which she still travels. Since working in the City BC (Before Children), she has trained in alternative therapies, belly dance and writing. Wendy combines these three disciplines to give balance to her life.
Her first novel ‘Destiny of Angels’ was published in 2012, closely followed by two short story anthologies and a non-fiction book ‘Wendy Woo’s Year – A Pocketful of Smiles’, an inspirational guide, offering ideas, meditations and recipes to make every precious day, a happy one.
Moving to Wales, the fulfilment of a 15 year dream, inspired her to write the Standing Stone book series, set in Wales in the countryside she loves.
Writing workshops in Wales widened her writing perspective and the resulting short stories have been published online and in anthologies.
Wendy writes fantasy, with a dollop of magic, exploring the ‘what if…?’ the starting point for all her stories. She lives with her partner and cats, restoring her farmhouse and immersing herself in the natural world on her doorstep.
Many of you will have enjoyed Trish’s writing here before. She is one of my many talented students that I’m privileged to tutor each week. Hope you equally relish this dip into the past. For some of you it’s a small history lesson, for others, a memory. I am not saying which group I belong to!!
The following words belong to Trish…
If you haven’t heard of a liberty bodice, believe that half-a-crown is something to do with impoverished royalty and never had the experience of slapping a television to stop the grainy black and white picture from rolling, then this book is probably not for you.
It is intended for us Baby Boomers who, in the stability following the Second World War, formed a statistical bulge in the population python. It is a personal snapshot of a time that is as mystifying to my children as the Jurassic Era -and just as unrecognisable.
My intention is to nudge some long-forgotten memories to the surface, test your own recollections and provide statistics to put it all in context.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
The Rat in the Python
Chapter One The House
It would be fair to say that most houses in this country pre-date our generation and so this topic should present few surprises.
However the external appearance is deceptive. We’ve all seen old postcards of towns and can instantly recognise many of the buildings. But what of the insides?
They were different.
In my day none of my friends had fitted carpets and central heating was unheard of. We did have carpets, and the ones I remember were hideously patterned, but they were square or rectangular, circular or oval and housewives in a hurry could lift a corner and sweep the dust and dirt under them.
We had a coal fire downstairs and my mother would plait and weave strips of newspaper, lay them like a nest in the grate and build a carefully-constructed pyramid of coal in the centre in and around more of these strips. Then she’d light the paper. If it looked as though it was going to sulk and go out she’d produce a sheet of galvanised zinc like a flat shield that she’d hold over the front of the open fire to ‘draw’ it up and once it was going properly we’d feed it with great hunks of coal the size of bread loaves that you could later split open with the poker.
My father would hold the paper he was reading in front of a flagging fire to quickly perk it up. This wasn’t always successful. A dark patch would appear in the middle of the newsprint before the hastily dropped paper burst into flames. Occasionally we’d use a toasting fork to dangle bits of bread in front of the fire but conditions had to be just right. Too soon after the addition of fresh coal and you had a brittle piece of bread with smoked edges; wait until it was too hot and the bread itself would flame and char. There was also a knack to balancing the bread on the fork so that as large a flat surface as possible presented itself to the heat. I lacked this knack. The bread would tear around the prongs and slide down towards the handle or I’d have it so delicately balanced that it would fall off into the gritty ashes or the blaze itself
Paraffin heaters were also popular; ugly great brutes that reeked and smoked but put out an impressive bit of heat. When I first heard ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ I thought of these heaters and even now I can see the blue ring of flames that had to be set at just the right height to balance heat against pollution. And if you’ve lived in a house with a paraffin heater you won’t need me to remind you of that all-pervasive, oily smell.
The non-smelly heating involved electric bar fires. Virtually everyone I knew had at least one of these in the home. They ranged from those of impressive size which stood proudly in the fireplace as a soulless coal substitute, to small, portable ones. These consisted of one or two tightly-wound bars of wire in front of a shiny concave area designed to reflect heat back into the room. You’d flick a switch at the side to turn on one or both bars and then you’d wait to see if either began to glow red. Eventually they’d click and creak and produce a vicious belt of radiant heat from bright-orange elements which were ‘protected’ by a few widely-spaced strips of thin steel. From a Health & Safety perspective these were a nightmare by anyone’s standards. On the other hand, as few families of our acquaintance used fireguards for their coal fires – or their paraffin heaters, for that matter – I suppose it points to a time when Darwinism ruled; parents warned offspring of the dangers and, if they didn’t want to end up as a Cautionary Tale, children kept fingers and other bits at a safe distance.
In the winter, when houses which had never heard of double glazing shivered and quivered, sash windows rattled and draughts moaned through closed doors, the family snuggled up in front of the heat source. Those old advertisements of parents and children in a compact group do reflect the times, but the togetherness was often down to a primitive need to be warm rather than a desire to spend time with each other. Anywhere further than six feet from a fire was as foolhardy as a penguin trying to go it alone in the Antarctic Those of us who got as close to the heat as was possible, without actually spontaneously combusting, suffered from chilblains. I don’t know if anyone in this country still gets chilblains but for me it was an expected accompaniment to the cold weather. My feet were affected more than my hands and I can remember stamping them hard on the ground on my way to school in an attempt to calm the dreadful itch of them.
It goes without saying that when the downstairs was cold, the upstairs was colder. In a time before electric blankets and duvets all we had to protect us was a sheet, blankets and a hot water bottle. Some expensive hotels still use sheets and blankets in preference to duvets but they have the benefit of centrally heated rooms that make them an affectation rather than a necessity. It didn’t seem to matter how many blankets were heaped on the bed, the only bit that felt warm was the bit right next to you that had leached the heat from your own body. Hot water bottles were very welcome but imperfect. Unimaginative relatives knitted weird, lank, garter-stitched covers for them but I never used mine because they absorbed some of the heat intended for me. This meant that at first the bottle was too hot to touch and I’d put my foot against it for as long as I dared before snatching it off at the last moment (exacerbating the chilblain situation). For the briefest of times the temperature was perfect, and it was a real comfort. On waking you quickly learned not to move beyond your imprint in the bed. Everywhere else was inhospitably cold and you could watch your breath curl around the room whilst you mustered the courage to get up. The hot water bottle, by now endothermic, was resolutely avoided until the last moment when both feet would dart down, snatch it up the bed and leave it on top for re-filling that night.
Sometimes, presumably after vivid dreams, I’d wake in the night to find myself either entangled in a nightmare of Witney blankets or shivering because one end was still attached at the foot of the bed but the rest were in a heap on the floor. In the latter case, it was impossible to simply pull them up and go back to sleep; they had to be individually replaced in the right order or they’d be sliding off before you could start counting sheep again.
I was a student when I used a duvet (or continental quilt as they were billed then) for the first time. It was synthetic and the filling quickly moulded itself into clumps that refused to even themselves out again. Nevertheless, from that moment on I knew there was no going back to sheets and blankets.
And there’s nothing more irritating than blankets with rucks in them, unless it’s blankets that don’t line up at the bottom of the bed, or blankets that don’t reach your chin. Or blankets.
Heating also leads me to the issue of plugs and sockets.
My grandmother had a friend who would make sure before she went to bed that every socket had a plug in it. She explained it was to stop the electricity escaping into the house. In her day, as in mine, those sockets were round and the plugs that went into them were round-pin plugs. They were usually brown bakelite and the flex that went into them was covered in a woven material that frequently frayed into long wispy bits at the ends. It’s weird but I don’t remember the changeover from round prongs to square. Did I sleep through it? Did it happen so slowly that it crept up in tiny steps until the old was gone and the new already commonplace?
I suspect that when houses were first wired for electricity they were done in a half-hearted way because no one could think of many uses for the stuff and so one socket per room was considered more than ample. Then people decided on table and standard lamps to cast a warm glow on father reading his paper or mother darning the socks, wirelesses that needed wires, gramophones, electric fires, irons. The only way to deal with such a constraint was to buy adapters and stick one into another until there were sufficient sockets to satisfy demand. The weight of the massed plugs vying for space was frequently enough to drag the adapters away from the wall and someone would have to push them back in to restore power. As I write this, one of the public information films of the time has surfaced in my head and it shows such a cluster of adapters smoking in protest before bursting into flames. It wasn’t just my family, then…
The kitchen seems to be at the forefront of change. In the 50s there were rich pickings to be had for anyone with an innovation that was labour-saving or which made the heart of the home look more modern. Into the 21st century, the wheel has turned in the opposite direction and the more modern look involves a return to butler sinks and free-standing shabby chic furniture in place of the streamlining of the fitted kitchen but, like a return to blankets, there is space for these when other things allow them to be decorative features over the practical.
When I was a child, like most of my friends it was assumed that my mother would stay at home and be a housewife whilst my father would go out and work to keep her there. Women were given housekeeping money and were expected to make it stretch to cover all our needs. A housewife wore an apron to protect her clothes that were comparatively expensive in a time before cheap, supermarket-produced goods. To make ends meet she would frequently cook the same things on the same day of the week so Monday’s meal would be something that made use of the leftovers from Sunday’s roast. She would cook the meals on a white, enamelled stove and ours had bluish-black chips showing where pans had knocked against the enamel. There would also be whorls of grey scratches around the rings where spills had been scrubbed clean.
The food was kept in cupboards or, if you had the space, in a pantry. Vegetable racks held greens with yellowing outer leaves and a limited selection of root vegetables that were prepared in the sink. The first kitchen sink I remember was a white, enamelled one with a green stain under the cold water tap. Taps – which invariably had knobbly cross-shaped tops – seemed to drip with a frequency uncommon today.
Milk was kept in a small fridge (and ours was the envy of our neighbours because it had a freezer compartment that was big enough for some ice cubes or a block of waxy ice cream). I knew someone who still put her milk and cheese in a milk-safe. This was a terracotta container that was placed over the items and doused in water. In hot weather the evaporating water kept the contents cool and at a time when milk arrived daily that was usually enough.
Without the benefit of freezers, a lot of our food came in cans and, before we bought our first rotary, or butterfly, can-opener, the lids had to be removed using a metal lever that was used to punch triangular holes around the top until you could bend the jagged edge back and get at the contents. The rotary opener was a vast improvement on this but there always came a time when it would slip its way round without cutting. You’d have to try clipping it onto the can at a rakish angle and grip really, really tightly, praying that it would get far enough round for success. Inevitably there would be a couple of patches that the opener had grooved but not cut and these were now more difficult to reach. We weren’t the first family, I’m sure, that would resort to sliding spoon handles into the gap, trying to prise the lid back.
There were very few kitchen gadgets in our house when I was a child. We did have a rotary whisk which I found mesmerisingly exciting. Chips were cooked in a saucepan with a wire basket to hold, remove and drain them. You’d put a slab of lard into the pan, heat it up until it was smoking, put the prepared chips into the wire basket and lower it, hissing and spitting like a trapped cat, into the fat. It is no surprise that chip pan fires also feature prominently in my memories of public information warnings.
The cupboards were filled with china, and there was always one cupboard that had the best china in it to be used when visitors came. Cups always had saucers, and mugs were unheard of in the home. If I fast forward to the beginning of the sixties I enter a different world of colour and melamine. We thought melamine was cool and trendy and it spun and clattered without breaking when dropped onto the equally colourful Marley tiles arranged checkerboard-style on the floor. We threw out our melamine when earthenware became popular…
As a child it wasn’t uncommon to have three cooked meals a day. Breakfast might be scrambled eggs on toast or a fry-up, lunch would generally consist of something meaty with vegetables plus a pudding and the evening meal would be a more substantial version of lunch. All of these meals were cooked from scratch which generated a good deal of washing up. As a consequence, mothers around the country would be continually reaching for their Marigolds and balancing the washed items on the wire rack on the draining board to be dried with a tea-towel that had a stripe down each side.
The Crime and Coffee Festival beckoned me to Cardiff Library to solve the mystery of writing and publishing. The workshop: Cut, Slash and Perfect promised to reveal more about the writing and traditional publishing journey. As I passed the crime scene tape surrounding the bookshelves, I did wonder if any authors had been lost during the cutting, slashing and perfecting process. I went undercover to find out more about traditional publishing. Would I need an agent, and would I need a sharper pair of scissors?
Authors, Judith Barrow and Thorne Moore, chatted with the editor, Caroline Oakley, of Honno Pressabout publishing. The entertaining chat provided food for thought for all authors who wish to publish their work. As I listened, I captured some of the main points and discovered what makes editors cut and authors cry. The panel put me at ease, and I was able to remove my disguise as an indie author.
Introducing Caroline Oakley who is the editor at Honno Press
Caroline has worked in general trade publishing for over thirty years and has edited a number of award winning and bestselling authors. Caroline works for, Honno Press, an independent Welsh Women’s publisher in Wales.
Clues from the Editor
Caroline gave a balanced overview of publishing
Big publishers only work through agents.
Agents often have useful contacts within the publishing world and deal with the contracts. Care must be taken when selecting an agent because, as in all businesses, there are inefficient, self –styled experts, with little experience, out there. Google and search for those authors who write in your genre to find out the names of the agents who deal with your kind of book before submitting. You can approach independent and smaller publishers with or without an agent. Find out what this kind of publisher wants before approaching them. Research their website; look at the work of the signed authors. Take your time to select the appropriate one for your genre; consider how much advance that publisher pays, the amount of royalties for sold books you will get, your rights (such as audio and foreign rights for your work) and the terms and conditions of your contract. You must read the small print!
Don’t get disheartened with rejection letters sent to publishers. Hope your manuscript reaches the publisher at the right time (by this I mean that it’s not a miserable Monday morning for them, or they’ve not had a quarrel with a partner or their family – or they’ve not had a week of wading through a pile of “not very good” manuscripts before they get to yours)– it is subjective.
Indie publishing has its challenges, but it gives you more control and you get all the profit. The Indie author deals with every element of the process; from the writing to choosing the cover, the blurb formatting, publication and marketing. Traditionally published authors also are expected to promote and market. Indie publishing is time- consuming but as I said before, they do have complete control over their work.
Whichever publishing route you choose, you must get yourself an editor! Although time-consuming (and sometimes devastating!) you must go through the cut, slash perfect process. A good editor will identify gaps, things that possibly don’t work in your writing, mistakes such as change of dates of characters’ birthdays or colour of eyes in different parts of the book, errors in time scale etc.. But will not tell you what to do, only point out those mistakes and suggest changes to make your work stronger.
It is advisable that every author, whether self-published or traditionally published, has a website, blog and social media accounts.
Judith Barrow has published four books with Honno Press. She writes historical family saga fiction. She has also self-published books and a collection of short stories of the minor characters in her trilogy.
What did Judith say about her publishing journey?
I love working with Honno Press. The staff are friendly and accessible. As a writer you learn what you can and cannot get away with. I have built up trust with the editor who I know has had a long and professional career in all genres. And, although Honno Pressalso organises the front cover for the books, they have allowed me input to the final decision .
Working with Honno Press provides me with quality, professional editing. I cry every time, I get the editor’s comments, but I know, in my heart, it makes the work better. An editor will read your book line by line and give an overview. A good editor will ask the right questions but will not give you the answers. When you edit your work, you must keep your own voice.
I do not send my very first draft to an editor and probably have about ten revisions. I ask my friend, who is an author, to give me an honest opinion on anything I have doubts about. I am also a member of a writing group and we email sections of our books for discussion. But do, avoid too much input from too many sources into your work as it can confuse you – have a small trusted network of writers. Believe in yourself! The cut, slash and perfect stages involves a first general edit, as many more detailed edits then necessary to get the writing to its best, a line by line edit to weed out any noticeable mistakes and then a proof read by the publisher’s proof reader. Finally, it comes back to me for a last read to make sure all is correct. I do like this final stage; it does make me feel as though I have control over the end product to some degree.
Thorne had published three books with Honno Fiction and writes domestic noir and psychological fiction. Thorne has self-published and works with two publishers.
What did Thorne say about publishing?
She has self-published short stories in order to market a published book. The different publishers are relevant to the books promoted. Regardless of how the books are published, the author must have a good editor.
A writer needs an editor to stand on the mountain and look down on your work. During the writing process the author becomes too absorbed to be objective. Through the feedback from the editor, you learn to write. The editor will locate your common mistakes then you will avoid these in subsequent drafts.
You do need a small critical group of friends who will give you constructive criticism.
Don’t worry about the reviews. Jane Austin has plenty of one star and two star reviews on Amazon.
Don’t give up! I was rejected by Honno at first. In an interview with Thorne, she told me about the trials and tribulations of her publishing journey. This story of Thorne’s publishing journey will be published very soon.
A good editor is key to success for all authors: traditionally published and self-published need a good editor. A good editor will identify gaps in your work and ask the right questions. My editor forced me to ask lots of questions about my book and rework sections. I learnt a great deal about my writing through this process. As a self-published author I have involved a professional editor, beta readers and other authors. One must be careful of making new mistakes in a new edit – it is expensive to pay for all the various stages of the edit. I understand the security of working with an independent publisher who provides an editor. The indie author has greater control of the book but must complete all stages of the process including the book cover and the marketing. In the end, all clues pointed towards the importance of a professional editor during the publishing process. No matter how many times the author sharpens the scissors to cut, they still need an editor and dosh to pay for quality. Clearly, this wasn’t an open and shut case and more investigation needed to be completed.
Clue of the Day
Caroline suggested the market for the unreliable narrator in all genres will change. Like fashion in clothes, fashion in books also changes. No one knows what will be the next ‘in thing’ for novels.
Judith waited for me in a department store while I waited for her in Cardiff Library. Would the meeting take place? Neither of us had thought to share our phone numbers prior to the meeting.
Judith emerged from the lift, in Cardiff Library, wearing a silk purple top that was co-ordinated with her fabulous lilac hair. I warmed to her instantly! Her beaming smile lit up her face and I knew she’d make me laugh. She travelled from Pembrokeshire to take part in a panel on agents, traditional and Indie publishing and agents at the Crime Cymru event, and her huge canvas bag bulged with goodies for the day ahead. I was lucky to grab some time with her.
Judith: At last, I thought you’d got lost in your handbag. I waited in the department store and realised I had no contact details. After I finished my mint tea, I asked three strange women if they were Jessie. They thought I was mad.
Judith’s Yorkshire accent and mischievous blue eyes instantly made me giggle. Great to meet someone who spoke the same lingo.
Jessie: I’m so sorry but I thought you’ be able to read my mind. Couldn’t you hear me calling you in my dulcet tones across the streets of Cardiff? Don’t ask me why I didn’t send you my mobile number and confirm the meeting. I also approached a couple of potential Judiths but the real Judith is much better. So pleased, I found a representative of Honno Press and she had your number.
We laughed and grabbed some coffee from a coffee station in Cardiff Library. The staff set up a couple of chairs for us to conduct the chat. Having spilt the coffee all over my hand, we settled down to chat about Judith.
Jessie: Judith, tell me what a Yorkshire lass is doing in Pembrokeshire.
Judith: We went on holiday to Pembrokeshire, loved it and never returned to Saddleworth. We bought a half-built house and renovated it.
Jessie: Do you miss Yorkshire?
Judith: Pembrokeshire was a great place for our kids to grow up. I miss Yorkshire stone, craggy landscape and the meandering moors. I love our house, in Pembrokeshire, but I always expected I’d live in a stone cottage in my old age. As you can hear, even after forty years in Wales my accent hasn’t changed – I’m still a Yorkshire lass. People say they can hear my voice in their heads when they read my books. Lucky them!
Jessie: Obviously, people love your voice as you have written eight books. How did the writing start?
Judith: Well, I hope they do. As for the writing, I’d written since I was a child but never done anything much about it. Then I went to night school with my daughter. I finished A Level English and went on to gain a degree through the Open University. Whilst studying for the degree, I had breast cancer, and this made me see life differently. I decided to follow my dream to become a writer. Initially, I had an agent but she wanted me to write as an author of Mills and Boon so I parted company with her.
Jessie: That’s ridiculous; your books are not of that genre. The books are historical fiction with engaging stories of the Howarth family. The books have complex plots and characters.
Judith: I write people driven, gritty dramas and wasn’t prepared to adapt my writing. Eventually, I got a contract with Honno Press – an independent publisher in Wales- and found their approach personal and supportive. My first book ‘Pattern of Shadows’
Jessie: What’s Pattern of Shadows about?
Judith: It’s the story of a nursing sister, Mary Howarth, and her family, during World War Two and is set around a POW camp located in a disused cotton mill in a Lancashire town. When I was a child my mother was a winder in a cotton mill and I would go there to wait for her to finish work; I remember the smell of the grease and cotton, the sound of the loud machinery and the colours of the threads and bales of material. Pattern of Shadows was meant to be a standalone book, but the characters wanted me to carry on with their lives. Eventually, it developed into a family saga trilogy. My recent book, the prequel, is A Hundred Tiny Threads. The two main characters, Winifred and Bill, are the parents of the protagonist in the trilogy, Mary Howarth. They wanted me to explain their, how they had become what they are in the trilogy. I was happy to; I think, as we get older, we are made by our life experiences.
Jessie: I’m reading One Hundred Tiny Threads. I’m about a third of the way through. It’s a great read. The opening is engrossing with Winifred waking up to another day in the shop. The characters are so real, and I love getting inside their heads. I’m shouting at them all the time. The way you thread the characters’ attitudes towards women is brilliant. I’m fascinated by the Suffragettes in Leeds. For some reason, I always imagined the movement to be concentrated in London.
Judith: Researching the Suffragettes opened up my eyes. I wanted to tell their story through the voices of the characters and show how women, in the society at that time, were ready for the change. Stories draw people into to the political background of the era, and life was certainly a challenge then. People say my books are dark. Have you got to the gory bits?
Jessie: Well, there has been a murder.
Judith: No, I’m thinking of scene after that – you wait. Bill’s a bastard but it’s his background. I don’t know why Winifred married him.
Jessie: Oh no, what was Winifred thinking of? I’m furious with her, as I haven’t read the terrible news yet. I’m intrigued as to why she didn’t marry the love of her life and scared for her.
Judith: oh ‘eck, hope I haven’t I haven’t spoiled it for you, Jessie. But, you must understand Bill had a terrible life as a child with his father. And then he was a soldier in the horrendous First World Wars. He was also one of the Black and Tans when he returned from the Front. He’s a bastard but didn’t have it easy. As I said, our lives shape us.
Jessie: I agree and people interest me too.
Judith: Yes, well your novel, You Can’t Go It Alone, is also character driven and could become a family saga. I can see it now. I want to know more about Luke and Rosa and their parents.
Jessie: I plan to do that, and you have inspired me to complete historical research. I would have to look carefully into the eras the generations were born into. Thanks for your advice.
Judith: No problem, I teach creative writing in Pembrokeshire, so I just can’t help myself (some would say it’s interfering!!). Writing is like looking at the world through the eyes of a child and I love it. I watch folk walk past my window, at home. It’s hilarious how people walk. I can’t stop people watching and passing it on through my books. I never stop watching and am always so busy.
Jessie: I notice you also organise Narberth Book Fair.
Judith: Yes, I organise it with a friend, author, Thorne Moore. It started in Tenby, but we had to move because we outgrew the venue with so many writers wanting to take part. I think it’s so important to attend these events; to get out there and meet the readers.
Jessie: What advice would you give to fledgling writers?
Judith: Get a professional editor and be prepared for a slog. The first draft of the book is the best bit. I always cry when I get my editor’s comments.
Jessie: Tell me, what have you got in your handbag today?
Judith handed me a copy of Pattern of Shadows and a book entitled Secrets; an anthology of short stories of the minor characters in the trilogy. She proceeded to let me in on the secret life of her handbag. She had some very colourful reading glasses, pens, more pens, bookmarks, a spare blouse, her mobile and an agenda.
Judith: As you can see I do love a bit of colour. I try to be organised and I absolutely love writing. I want you to place these books in your handbag and let the Howarth family keep you company. You’ll love some of the family and dislike some of the other – but that’s life!
Judith is fabulous fun, and I had a blast meeting with her. Meeting face to face is so much better than communicating on line. I delighted in her humour, straight-talking and infectious sense of fun. Judith is a natural storyteller, and this translates in her animated dialogue. She told me she is ‘living each day’. She thrives on her writing and engagement with authors. Her generosity was evident in her willingness to share the benefit of her experience.
Judith Barrow, originally from Saddleworth, near Oldham, and on the wrong side of the Pennines but still in Yorkshire, has lived in Pembrokeshire, Wales, for forty years.
She has an MA in Creative Writing with the University of Wales Trinity St David’s College, Carmarthen, a BA (Hons) in Literature with the Open University and a Diploma in Drama from Swansea University. She has had short stories, plays, reviews and articles, published throughout the British Isles and has won several poetry competitions. She has completed three children’s books.
She is also a Creative Writing tutor for Pembrokeshire County Council.
Winifred is a determined young woman eager for new experiences, for a life beyond the grocer’s shop counter ruled over by her domineering mother. When her friend Honora – an Irish girl, with the freedom to do as she pleases – drags Winifred along to a suffragette rally, she realises that there is more to life than the shop and her parents’ humdrum lives of work and grumbling. Bill Howarth’s troubled childhood echoes through his early adult life and the scars linger, affecting his work, his relationships and his health. The only light in his life comes from a chance meeting with Winifred, the daughter of a Lancashire grocer. The girl he determines to make his wife. Meeting Honora’s intelligent and silver-tongued medical student brother turns Winifred’s heart upside down and she finds herself suddenly pregnant. Bill Howarth reappears on the scene offering her a way out.
Some of you may know, as well as holding private creative writing workshops, I also tutor creative writing for the local council. Tutoring adults can be rewarding (discovering wonderful writers), chaotic (my lesson plans are rarely followed – someone will inevitably take things off at a tangent) hilarious (the undiscovered comedian/ the completely unaware comedian) and thought-provoking (especially with memoir writing) Every now and then I like to share some of their work. Here is a piece written by Trish Power (you may remember her as one of my students whose previous work, Enigma, I posted here
As you will see, this is the same exercise that inspired Alex Abercrombie’s poem here .
AND THIS IS THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED
We study the expansive hall, wood buffed to a mirrored finish reflecting the framed dignitaries set at precise intervals around the walls. At the start of the tour we had chatted and laughed in between our guide’s flawless documentary. But a hush has fallen over us now as we take in the enormity of the events leading to this point. Joleen assesses us. Practised as she is in her art, she is attuned to our mood and knows when to intervene.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, shall we move on?’
She walks ahead towards the end of the hall, stopping at one of the wall panels. When everyone is assembled and she has our attention she reaches out an immaculately manicured finger and pushes on a piece of the gold scrolling.
There’s a collective intake of breath as that section of the wall swings silently inwards exposing a carpeted stairwell lit by bright, rectangular lights recessed into the edge of the ceiling.
‘Please hold on to the rail; the treads are quite steep.’
She takes a step back and ushers us ahead with a sweep of her arm.
We arrive at an area where the lighting is dimmer. Six doors lead off from a central square. There is a shuffling as we make way for Joleen to move through us to the middle door on the right. This is what we’ve been waiting for.
We enter in total silence.
In front of us is a large, rectangular table surrounded by leather chairs. In front of each chair is a file of what appears to be documents. Behind us is a huge, wall-mounted screen.
At the head of the table is a taller chair with a studded back and embellished on top with a golden eagle. There are four phones in different colours set in an arc around a rectangular metal box containing a keypad and a large, red button.
There are other things in the room but for now our focus is on that button. The red button.
‘As you all are aware, ladies and gentlemen, this is where the Secretary of Defense and a united cohort of military advisors attempted to dissuade him from his plan of action. They pointed out the likely consequences for the world but were silenced by his declaration that he was Commander-in-Chief and outranked them all. He wasn’t going to stand by and let someone say things like that about him, even if they were an ally.
‘The video cameras were checked to make sure that they were still running as he insisted on the codes being tapped into the keypad.
‘Again, he was urged not to carry on.
‘But, like a child determined on having his way, he gave a triumphant grin and stabbed a stubby finger down on that button.
‘There were sighs of resignation but the way forward was clear now. He had failed their test and proven himself to be a danger to the free world. The Secretary of Defense gave a nod and two men approached, one of them carrying something rolled-up under his arm. They slipped behind the still-smirking president, reached forwards and slipped his arms into the straightjacket.
‘And so, ladies and gentlemen, the president of the most powerful country in the world was taken into protective custody in order to safeguard our planet – and this is the room where it happened.’
I reviewed the book as a member of Rosie Amber’s Review Team #RBRT in return for an honest review
I gave Donkey Boy and Other Stories 4* out of 5*.
Shot through with flashes of humour the stories here will entertain, amuse, and make you think. Mary Smith’s debut collection of short stories is a real treat, introducing the reader to a diverse range of characters in a wide range of locations. A donkey boy in Pakistan dreams of buying luxuries for his mother; a mouth artist in rural Scotland longs to leave the circus; a visually impaired man has a problem with his socks; and a woman tries to come to terms with a frightening gift – or curse
I do like Mary Smith’s style of writing. Previously I have read and enjoyed No More Mulberries by this author; my review here: http://bit.ly/2CTEuZl
This is a fascinating collection of short stories, set in various places with a wealth of diverse characters, all wonderfully rounded. The author has a talent for setting the scene and giving a sense of place with few well-chosen words.
I read each of these unusual stories slowly, taking in the way each situation unfolded, savouring the reactions of the characters to each problem they faced, enjoying the touches of humour, poignancy, empathising with the great sadness in some of the tales.
Not sure I had an overall favourite, they are all easy to read, but these are the ones that stayed with me long after I’d read them:
The story in the title,Donkey Boy. The protagonist, Ali, should be in school but instead drives a donkey cart for his father. His resentment is palpable from the very start. The dilemma he faces exposes the way different cultures live; not only their values and ethics but the differences in the child and adult in these societies. This is well deserving as the title story.
Trouble with Socks. Set in a care home with the character George; patronised by one of the carers who really is in the wrong job.
Accidents Happen. Set in Pakistan; the story of a young girl with a step father she detests.
Asylum Seekers. One of the monologues (I did like this way of writing/reading a short story). Though ironic, this reveals unpleasant bigotry and prejudice,
There is a whole gamut of human emotions in Donkey Boy and Other Stories and I thoroughly recommend this collection by Mary Smith to any reader. Whatever your favourite genre you’ll be sure to find one that will linger with you long afterwards.
Mary Smith has always loved writing. As a child she wrote stories in homemade books made from wallpaper trimmings – but she never thought people could grow up and become real writers. She spent a year working in a bank, which she hated – all numbers, very few words – ten years with Oxfam in the UK, followed by ten years working in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She wanted others to share her amazing, life-changing experiences so she wrote about them – fiction, non-fiction, poetry and journalism. And she discovered the little girl who wrote stories had become a real writer after all. Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women is an account of her time in Afghanistan and her debut novel No More Mulberries is also set in Afghanistan. Mary loves interacting with her readers and her
Well, yes it is worth it – we love it, despite the unexpected. Having a holiday apartment attached to our house has brought us many friends; visitors who return year after year in the summer to enjoy the lovely Pembrokeshire coastline and all the other attractions this part of West Wales offers. We love seeing them again. And we are fortunate to meet many new people as well. But there have been downsides. Or should I say, occasions that made us think again about sharing our home.
Such as the two elderly sisters …
I watched Husband walk past the kitchen window and waved. He didn’t wave back. Because of the goggles and the scarf around his nose and mouth I couldn’t tell if he smiled or not. I thought – probably not. He wore a helmet over a balaclava on his head, navy overalls, elbow length gloves and thigh waders. He looked ridiculous but I didn’t dare laugh. This was serious. He was on a mission… a clearing the sewers mission…
Husband in a hole!
The story of the sewers began a fortnight earlier in the shape of the two ladies. They arrived late on the Saturday evening; it was already getting dark. Despite our assurances that it didn’t matter; that we were home anyway, they continued to apologize profusely as we showed them to the apartment. There’d been traffic hold-ups, one of them suffered from car sickness so they’d had to stop often, they’d lost their way; gone off at the wrong junction of the M4 and ended up in Swansea.
We calmed them down, Husband offered to carry their luggage in.
‘No,’ they said, ‘we’ll be fine. You leave us to it. We haven’t much.’
They were ideal guests; the type we’d hoped for when we started this venture.
They were quiet, friendly, pleasant to have around.. Ever ready for a chat they sat with us in the garden a couple of the evenings enjoying a glass of wine, some nibbles. They didn’t go out much; just for one or two hours each day. Most of the time they sat on the guest patio, reading. Aged around eighty, we discovered they were twins; obviously both retired; one an ex school teacher, they other a librarian. They called us Mr and Mrs Barrow and we called them both Miss Smith (obviously not their real name!!) They wore almost identical clothes and shoes, had the same hairstyle, finished one another’s sentences in the same refined tones.
When we asked if everything was all right,did they need anything , we were told all was perfect. On the middle weekend they insisted I hand over the clean bedding and towels and changed the bed themselves.
On the last evening we invited them in for a meal. They only stayed a couple of hours; we were told they had an early start in the morning. Later we heard them hoovering. I knocked on the door and told them not to bother, they had a long day in front of them the following day.. Despite my protestations, they persisted for another hour.
They must have gone very early, they’d left before we got up at seven the next day.
Which I thought was great; it meant I could get on with the cleaning before the next visitors arrived.
It was halfway through the following week when we noticed the problem. Our new visitors complained that the loo wasn’t working properly and the bathroom was smelling. By the end of the day the kitchen sink in the apartment was backing up with unpleasant water and the lavatories in the main part of the house weren’t flushing efficiently. In fact they were overflowing!
At this point I’m wondering if I should have put a health warning on this post. Hmm?
Trying to be as delicate as possible here!!!
And so to the beginning of this sorry tale…
I watched Husband walk past the kitchen window and waved …
He stopped, came back to the window and motioned (sorry!) for me to open it. ‘I don’t suppose you want to help?’ he shouted through the scarf. I closed the window – the smell was bad. Besides I thought we should have sent for the local drains/ sewage clearing people. Being a ‘careful with money’ man, Husband thought he could “do it himself”
The new visitors went out for the day with a donation from us for meals.
Without going into any more graphic detail all I can say is that the blockage was… cat litter (with the evidence!). Our two little old ladies had apparently smuggled brought their cat on holiday with them (into our “no smoking, no pets” apartment) and flushed the contents of the litter tray down the loo. Which was washed by the water along the pipes only so far before setting like cement in the drains.
Six hours later – and after much shovelling and swearing – Husband conceded defeat and we sent for the specialists.
I connected the garden hose to the outside tap on the garage and hosed him down. Before he was allowed back into the house, he stripped off.
Which reminds me. Have I told you about the Naturists who came to stay…?