August 2013


This is the third in a series of posts describing my recent trip to England, Ireland, the Netherlands and Wales, from writing course to school reunion and more.

We might have met once as children, but N is ten years younger than me and we wouldn’t have had much in common then. She found me recently on Facebook, unsure who I was but knowing my name was somehow connected to her family. “We’re second cousins,” I wrote back, and we became friends. She sounded pleasant, but it was with a little trepidation that I waited for her to pick me up from Totleigh Barton, along with her husband and son.

I needn’t have worried. They sped me away, along narrow windy roads, from all the tension of the writing course, and chatted away in a very friendly manner. “We do have wider roads in Devon,” N’s hubby assured me later on. “We just haven’t been on any.” It was probably good for me not to have time to dwell on my performance at the course. In fact, I was so busy for the rest of my trip that I didn’t reflect on the course until I returned home.

They took me to Clovelly, a beautiful fishing village accessed by walking down a steep cobblestoned path. Vague memories of having been there before hovered around me. My parents probably took me there one summer when we stayed in Torquay or Ilfracombe. I probably complained about the walk back, up the hill.

Clovelly

Clovelly

While in the village, we had cream tea. This is one of the things I always like to do when I’m in England, and what better place to do it than in Devon, home to clotted cream.

We also walked along the sand and pebbles of Westward Ho beach, and later took their two dogs for a walk in the forest by their house.

In the evening, N and I talked families. She drew me a family tree and told me about the people in it. I did the same. My tree was much larger.

Landacre Bridge

Landacre Bridge
My arm looks burnt in this photo, but it’s really tanned.

The next day, we enjoyed another country walk, and a wary paddle on stony ground, before I caught the train back to London, to the house I stayed in before the course. This time it was full of people.

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“In my next post, I’ll be eating the top layer,” I wrote at the end of my last post. But, well you can’t really eat a sandwich like that. Or rather, you can but who would? So I’m going to bite into that delicious egg mayonnaise, wholewheat sandwich, even though this post is about the top layer.

The Arvon writing course. A five-day residential course in an old house in the heart of Devon called Totleigh Barton. The topic was: Fiction and Experience. Wow! Where do I start?

I met some lovely people. First of all, there was the couple who run the centre, Claire Berliner and Oliver Meek, and their assistant, Eliza Squire. Then the two tutors, Jean McNeil and Ben Faccini, and the guest tutor, Anjali Joseph. And also the other fourteen students on the course.

In the mornings, the tutors spoke about various topics and set us exercises, some of the results of which we read out loud.  In the afternoons, we did our homework – reading and writing, had tutorials – one each with each tutor, and made dinner when it was our turn. In the evenings, there were more sessions.

The spontaneity required for the exercises wasn’t always forthcoming from my section of the long oak table. But at other times it helped me to learn things about myself that I hadn’t thought about before. The socialising was also rather an effort, but I did my best, outside in warm sunshine on the grass, far away from noise.

Totleigh Barton from afar

Totleigh Barton from afar

I also learned a lot about writing, about some of the things writers have to think about, decisions they need to make.

Everyone involved put a lot of effort into the course and made it a wonderful experience. If that’s what all Arvon courses are like, I heartily recommend going on one – or many.

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I remained in Devon for Part 3 of the Social Sandwich, coming soon.

P.S. Today, on this special birthday, is when life begins, I’ve decided. Up to now, it was all practice.

This is the first of a series of posts describing my recent trip to England, Ireland, the Netherlands and Wales, from writing course to school reunion and more.

When you make a sandwich and you have a bit of filling left over, what do you do with it?

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Well, if you’re me, and especially if it’s my favourite – egg mayonnaise – you’ll eat it up first.

My extra filling formed my first two-and-a-half days, starting with an evening with my friend, M1. I’ve known her and her husband since our university days, and they’re both lovely and easy to get on with.

The bus ride to their house was a bit less pleasant. I understand it’s not usual to have air conditioning everywhere in Britain. I understand it’s not usually hot and, as everyone told me, I brought the heat with me. But right next to the seat I happened to sit on in the bus was a grid exuding HOT AIR! And all the other passengers sat there without a care in the world while I, used to heat outside but cool buses, felt sweat pouring off me in bucket loads. Or so it seemed. Never mind. I got there and the rest was fine.

The next morning, I left M1, but would be returning to her later. Leaving my suitcase at Waterloo, I went to meet the first of several people I’d never met before this trip – Rachael (Honest) and her two-year-old son, “Mushroom”.

Two-year-olds don’t make the best adult conversation companions, but we managed to talk a bit. In fact we said quite a lot as Rachael’s account shows, much more than I would have remembered the next day and certainly now that so much time has passed. I was surprised to read about Rachael’s embarrassment over two little episodes during the morning, as I didn’t notice it. I tend to think that only I could get embarrassed over such things. All-in-all, we both enjoyed our time together and I’m sure we’ll meet again in the future.

Isn’t it wonderful how suitcases have wheels these days. I don’t know how we ever managed without them. But what they need to invent now is a suitcase that can be wheeled up and down stairs. One thing I learned as I dragged my suitcase to my next temporary home is not to wear a skirt when you have to take a suitcase on the underground. You see, it gets windy in those tunnels. I was holding on to my skirt as I wheeled my case when I reached some stairs. I wanted to hold on to the handrail to pull myself and the case up. But I needed to stop my skirt from flying up and revealing too much, and I only have two hands.

Fortunately, a young man behind me saw my predicament [sorry – that’s a “Men from the Ministry” joke] and said, “Do you want a hand?”

“I’d love a hand,” I replied. Never have I been more grateful for a hand.

Family members had kindly let me stay in their house while they were away, but I didn’t have much time alone. Just enough to do some washing, because the hot weather meant that I had to keep dipping into the skirts, shorts and tee-shirts section of my suitcase.

The next morning, I met M2, another friend from uni, and we went for a long walk on Hampstead Heath, while catching up on news, and enjoyed lunch at the café at Kenwood and a tour of the grounds.

I returned in time to see the last set of Andy Murray making tennis history. Good for him!

So that was my pre-sandwich experience. In my next post, I’ll be eating the top layer.

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No, I’m not giving away any secrets. Sally has announced this herself. In fact she’s giving away over fifty writing/book-related prizes to celebrate, so do hop over to Sally’s blog if you want a chance of winning something.

Having met Sally on my recent trip, I have to say that she doesn’t look anywhere near fifty, but I’ll take her word for it!

Coincidentally, I have a special birthday coming up in exactly two weeks. Sixty! I can’t believe it myself.

Back soon with the Social Sandwich 🙂

The title of a piece of writing is important. It’s the first thing a potential reader sees. What title will turn that potential reader into an actual reader?

The title could be a pun. It could be a rhyme. It could tell the reader exactly what the piece is about, or it could leave the reader guessing.

I’ve been playing with words, wondering what to call the trip I’m going to blog about. One strong contender is: From Totleigh to Motley. It sounds good and sort of describes the two main events of the trip, although the writing course at Totleigh also involved a motley of people.

But I’ve decided on a different title: The Social Sandwich. The trip began with an intensive group activity and ended with one. In between there were many one-to-one conversations. Groups, too, but nothing as hard as those two.

Sandwich

I have a lot to say about this past month. Only trouble is, I don’t know what it’s going to be. So many new and exciting experiences, so many lovely people. I need to organise my thoughts before I start.

In the meantime, I must respond to the award that Rachael was kind enough to bestow on me:

Liebster Award

Rachael, who will also appear at the beginning of my account of the past month, has asked me five questions. Let’s see if I can answer them, despite a dire lack of sleep.

1. What motivates you to write? I started writing because I wanted to raise awareness of social anxiety, and I realised that writing was the way I could do that. I haven’t let go of that goal and it’s still a big motivation, but now other things spur me on, too. I enjoy writing and look forward to putting pen to paper, especially when I do that literally, away from the computer. And belonging to a writing group means that I have to produce work to submit to the group. The comments from the group also keep me on the writing path.

2. What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done? Well, it’s not skydiving or bungee jumping because I haven’t done those. I don’t think it’s any ride at a funfair. Judging by anxiety levels, I think it could be a job interview – the one in which I had to face five interviewers a once.

3. What’s the best advice (about writing, or life in general) you’ve ever received? This might be the best. It’s been said by many people in many different ways and applies to writing and life in general. Don’t wait for something to happen; make it happen.

4. How would you like to be remembered? That’s easy. As someone who raised awareness of social anxiety.

5. What’s your favourite line (this can be from a poem, a book, or it could be a quote you like)? Possibly this: “A cage went in search of a bird.” It’s by Kafka, but seeing that quote hasn’t encouraged me to read any of his work.

How did I do? I’m surprised I managed to write anything in this state.

Back soon with my account of an exciting month – after catching up on some of the blogs I’ve missed.