End of term report

 

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Otley Courthouse by me.

The writing group that I joined in September has broken up for Christmas and I have been thinking about what I’ve gained from the course so far.

All my life I have had the urge to write; its in my genes. My maternal grandfather was an an amateur poet, and his mother was a writer who had short stories published. The act of writing has been my problem. My handwriting is appalling and deteriorates drastically after one page. The advent of computers removed this barrier and my iPad is my best friend.

 

About five years ago, I started contributing articles for my daughter’s blog, memoirs of her childhood and stories of mine. Encouraged by the response on her blog I set up my own http://www.lifeaccordingtogramps.co.uk

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James Morgan Nash

This year, I had the thought that I should really expand my writing experience and meet other writers. The answer was to join the WEA Adventures in Creative Writing group that meets in the Courthouse Arts Centre in Otley. The course is run by James Nash, poet, enthusiastic and very encouraging teacher of writing who constantly challenges us to step out of our comfort zones. James has opened the farm gate, shooed me out of familiar fields and I’m now cantering over the hills and moors.

So far what I have learned is this.

Fiction

I have never before written fiction. But, given a topic or an opening sentence by James, I was fascinated how, without any plan, a character or plot develops a life of its own. The three pieces I wrote, Light is life, The letter and Fighting for life, did just that. I extended Fighting for life, originally 400 words, to eighteen hundred words and I was pleased that it seemed to maintain the pace and strength of narrative.

Flash fiction

I absolutely love this form of fiction. Trying to express something or telling a story in 100 words teaches the discipline of tight editing. To emphasis a point in the narrative you may have to go back and steal a word or words from an earlier sentence. In my story Jump Back, to emphasis the urgency of delaying the man rushing to the meeting in the Twin Towers I had to borrow words from an earlier sentence.
Jump Back, Falling for you and Mind trip were accepted by The Drabble, a blog specialising in works of 100 words or less. There is no financial gain, just the joy of seeing your work published.

Poetry

I’m definitely, way, way, out of my comfort zone when writing poetry. But, I now understand James, when he explained how poetry can feed through into our writing in other genres. Blank verse is one thing but rhyming poetry is quite something else. Sonnets are the very devil. I described writing sonnets as akin to trying to solve the Rubic Cube. Although I doubt I will ever sit and write a sonnet for fun, I have enjoyed the challenge of wrestling with iambic pentameters, rhyming couplets and quatrains. Robert Frost, a poet, I think, said “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” I suspect there is some truth in that.
More excruciating poetry pain from James is in the offing: no gain without pain. One reward was the publication of my poem Missing Life on The Drabble website.

Memoirs

This is definitely my comfort zone. I have been writing memoirs for the last few years, stories, mainly humorous, about my childhood. The memoirs I have written for the group projects are a bit more serious and, I think, deeper, more descriptive, and hopefully more poetical. The Picture is about my Uncle, an artist and Magic Uncle, a story about my Uncle Bill a magician. I also wrote about a personal experience. The Awakening is about waking in the middle of a major lung operation. In the narrative, to the slight shock of the group, I used the ‘F’ word and a lively group discussion was the result. I detest film scripts that pepper dialogue with swear words. Words, regarded as offensive should be used for impact and in context. In my story, when I woke up, I truly thought “where the fuck am I.” Thinking “Golly, gosh,where on earth am I,” isn’t me, doesn’t sound right, at all.
Readings

I wasn’t expecting this when I turned up for the first group meeting. I was a bit apprehensive about reading my work out to a room of strangers. But I look forward to doing this now. I have also noticed how, reading out a piece of work, even to myself in an empty room, highlights faults in the grammar or structure, helps feel the rhythm of the words and sentences.

So, so far an excellent experience and looking forward to the next round.

Fighting for life

imageThe red boxing glove fell out of the box as he lifted it down from the top of the wardrobe. It landed with a dull thud like a soft punch on the floor. He looked down at it and wondered; only briefly, there was a whole house to clear. His father was a hoarder.

Gathering the old newspapers, catalogues, obsolete radios and other pointless detritus of his dad’s life, he thought of his fractious relationship with his dad. For that matter his father’s fractious relationship with the whole family. There always seemed to be a bitterness, anger hidden just beneath the surface. What was that all this hoarding all about? Frank thought he had read somewhere that it was the symptom of an emotional trauma.

 

With the skip full Frank went through to the lounge. His dad was sat in his wheelchair staring out the bay window.
“I’ve put all the stuff you might want to keep in the kitchen,” said Frank, “Come on, I’ll push you through,”
“Don’t bloody bother, I’ll get there under my own steam. I’m not a spastic.”
“Okay, okay!” Cantankerous old bastard.

They sat quietly immersed in their habitual enmity, his dad examining the souvenirs of his life, a museum curator appraising the worth of some ancient artefacts. He picked up the boxing glove and, reaching inside pulled out a ribbon of white, stained fabric.
“What’s that?” Frank asked.
“The wrap, it’s the wrap.” His dad said, winding the fabric strip around his hand in demonstration of its purpose.
“I never knew you boxed, dad. You’ve never said.” Like many things Frank thought.
“Yes, well you bloody well know now,” said his dad, with his customary curtness.
“Were you any good?”
His father stared blankly through the window, across the garden, Frank’s question left hanging, unanswered.

In the silent void of the kitchen Frank thought, recalled his childhood, his teenage years. Remembered when he refused to allow him to join the local boxing club. Why? If he had been a boxer, why not?

Frank loaded the boxes into the back seat of his car, loaded his dad into the front seat and the wheelchair into the boot. They were ready to go.

“I want to stop off on the way, see somebody, like.”
“What for dad? Said Frank, surreptitiously checking the time, patience stretched. “We’ve a long way to go.”
“Won’t take a lot of time ,son.”
They pulled into the car park, in the shade of the chestnut tree, near the ornate entrance gate. Frank hefted his father’s wheelchair out of the boot and helped him out of the car.
“What’s all this about dad?” Asked Frank as he pushed the chair along the path.
“You’ll see soon enough son,” said his dad, “you’ll understand when you see.”
Father and son stopped at a pale gravestone.
“Who’s this dad, who’s Kenneth Benson?”
There was no answer. Frank looked down. His father was bent forward in his chair silently crying. Then, in a voice choked with tears he told his son the story, the only story of his life.

………..smells; sweat, cigar smoke, sour beer. Stench of humans. Noise; primeval baying, shouting. He’s dropped his left. There, an opening! Quick! Red leather flashes through the air. Sharp slap. Impact jars the bones of my arm. His head snaps round. Sweat, a crescent arcing out, glittering in the flood lights. Body, gracefully pirouetting, slowly falling to hit the canvas, bouncing. Noise; cheering, shouting. The referee is slapping the canvas, counting, counting. But, he could go on counting forever and ever……..

“Kenny was dead, son, I killed him.”

The gift

Gav had saved hard, made sacrifices, to buy a special gift for his daughter. She lived with his estranged wife. But this vital present, from Amazon, failed to arrive.

On the far side of the city a thoughtless courier delivered a parcel in error.
Gav heard a knock, opened his door.
“Are you Gavin Stevens?”
“Who’s asking?” Suspicious, aggressive.
“Your parcel’s been delivered to me by mistake,” said Sandy..
“Where’ve you come from?”
“Yeadon.”
“You’ve come all that way?”Astonished
“Yes.”
“Just for me?” Catch in voice.
“Yes.”
“Nobody’s ever done anything like that for me.”
“Well, I have. Merry Christmas!”

A disappointing end

imageLife has many beginnings and endings. Not always what you hoped for, like a train journey with uncertain time tables and disappointing destinations, and, if you are unlucky, derailments too. Eric was pondering on this analogy while sitting uncomfortably on the hard bench, as the door swung shut with a clang, imprisoning him in the small airless police cell. Air may have been in short supply, but there was an abundance of odours, mostly unidentifiable. The only one he could be certain of: the pungent aroma of piss from the galvanised pail in the corner. He thought to himself that his life had just experienced a triple whammy: a timetable malfunction, derailment and definitely a disappointing destination. Thinking, as Eric knew from experience, was something you did a lot of in a police cell.

His mind reset to the point earlier in the week when ‘Brains’ Carmichael’s bronze Range Rover drew up alongside, just as the gates of Armley Prison closed, not for the first time, behind him. As he climbed out of the driving December sleet into the plush car interior, the saying, ‘as one door closes another opens’, entered his mind. The lift was as welcome as Brains offer of work. The money would be handy, help ease his way back into the matrimonial home, buy presents for the kids he hadn’t seen for 3 years and 4 months. The job would be a breeze, said Brains. A breeze in here would be nice, Eric thought ruefully, as he looked around his cell.

The job was to rob the Yorkshire Bank in Headingley, an area of Leeds heavily populated by University students. Brains’s plan revolved around the Otley Run, a traditional pub crawl by drunk students in fancy dress. Brains would employ a motley group of crackheads and layabouts to hand out fliers to the students, their supposedly better educated peers. The fliers advertised an improbable promotion: the Yorkshire Bank offering vouchers for free drinks, redeemable at one of the local pubs. As the inevitable tsunami of excited students descended on the bank, the gang, dressed in Santa Claus outfits, would mingle with them. In the ensuing chaos the door between the public area and the back office would be jemmied, the staff intimidated and the contents of the cash drawers and safe emptied into sacks. They would then slip out, stroll to the Original Oak, four Santa Clauses with swag bags slung over their shoulders, where the getaway car would be waiting. The plan seemed foolproof, but Brains had hired a fool, the preeminent getaway driver ‘Plank’ Murphy.

The evening before the robbery, Plank, an expat, flew in from Benidorm, collected the mock Uber taxi from the long stay car park and drove to the local Travelodge hotel, where he spent the night with an energetic call girl. None of this would have been relevant, but Plank, exhausted from his tussle with the call girl, lived up to his name and forgot to turn his watch back an hour. This small error, this failure to rotate the crown of his Rolex, bought from a Moroccan on the Levante beach, meant that he pulled into the pub car park a full hour too soon. The error was compounded by the appearance of four inebriated students, a post grad biochemist and three aspiring doctors, dressed as Joseph and the three wise men. Fully expecting an Uber taxi they jumped, or fell into Planks car. Briefed to expect the gang to be dressed in seasonal apparel, Plank played his part and rammed his right foot to the floor. When questioned later by DC Armitage, it was hard to say what had surprised the students most. The departure from the pub car park, rear doors still hung open as the taxi fishtailed on the ice on Otley Road or their unintended arrival in Hull.

His mistake dawned on Plank as he passed under the shadow of the Humber Bridge. As the bemused students stumbled out of the car in the outskirts of Hull a bemused Brains and his hapless gang were climbing into a police van.

Eric’s musings on these disastrous events were interrupted as the hatch at the bottom of the cell door slid open. A small tray was pushed through carrying a mince pie garnished with a sprig of holly. “Merry Christmas!” Said a disembodied voice from the corridor followed by a mirthless laugh.

As he bit into the pastry, Eric again pondered how unsatisfactory the beginnings and endings in his life had been.

The picture

imageDays before my fifteenth birthday I sat, with my Uncle Al on the sofa in our lounge, in the thin winter sunlight, as he taught me the principles of parallel and angular perspective, drawing elegant diagrams on a sketch pad. I carried the memory and used the knowledge throughout my career as a designer. At the end of this impromptu lesson he handed me a birthday present wrapped in brown paper. On the morning of my birthday I carefully unwrapped the gift. It was a picture.

The picture, a watercolour sketch, disinterred a childhood memory.

It is 1960 and I am 10 years old. I have called to see Uncle Al who is busy in his workshop, a long wooden shed set in the garden behind his bungalow. I open the door and step into a world of familiar smells; the sweet smell of wood, pipe tobacco and the slightly sour smell of wood glue. I sit on a high stool, amongst the dust motes that hang in the sunlight and watch my uncle. He is stooping over the upturned hull of a model ship, carefully shaping it with a spoke shave, the metal blade making a dull rhythmic hiss as it carves through the wood. Near to me, on the workbench, there is a completed sailing ship, a Man o’ War, that seems afloat on a sea of curled wood shavings, sails billowing with nonexistent wind. A backdrop of small saws, chisels and files, the accoutrements of joinery, hang orderly on the wall.

Leaning against this array of tools is a small watercolour painting. Elbows on the bench, chin cupped in my hands, I look at the picture and ask where he painted it. He tells me that it is a sketch for a much larger oil painting that he has been commissioned to do for a wealthy farmer. In the picture, a landscape, a mountain stands under towering clouds with the farmer’s fields and a copse in the foreground. Uncle Al, abandons his ship, to come and stand at my shoulder. He patiently explains the composition, shares with me, his knowledge and his time. Later I will be shown the completed oil painting, but I think it lacks the simple spontaneity of the sketch.

In the winter of the year that he gave me the picture, Uncle Al died, slamming shut the door to his treasure trove of knowledge. My uncle, before he retired, ten years earlier, had been the curator of the Chambers Street Museum in Edinburgh. He restored ancient artefacts, built fascinating working models and miniature ships, that I, as a child on visits to the museum with my father, would look at with my nose pressed up against the glass of the display cases. He was also was an artist of great skill.

Many years into the future, my mother would tell me how, after her father was killed in the First World War, Uncle Al, her mother’s brother, became a surrogate father, of sorts. In the Scottish tradition I carry a string of family names, like a line of wagons transporting the freight of family history into the future. The picture is signed in neat initials with the name of my uncle: A. J. Lothian. Of my names, Alexander James Lothian Wilson, the Alexander and Lothian were given in honour of my mother’s much loved Uncle. My name continues its journey as the middle name of my grandson Charlie Alexander Driver who will inherit the picture and this memoir.

Dark mind

imageThis is my attempt at writing a sonnet. Devilish stuff, but challenging, and as James Nash our tutor says, writing sonnets will strengthen our writing skills. James gave us the first line. My sonnet took a life of it’s own and turned into a poem about depression. From my bedroom window there is an area of grass that floods in heavy rain and frequently a heron, statuesque, stands sentinel.

 

 

 

Dark mind

Rain falls softly across the flooded field
As I look forlornly at the sad landscape
Inside my heart, I feel my fate is sealed
For, from this dark room, l cannot escape

The heron, statuesque, stands sentinel
In the still water, all seeing, knowing all
An augur, possessor of wisdom’s pearl
Pays no mind to my cry, my primal call

But, the heron slowly leaves, takes flight
Mellow morning sun soothes my despair
Mind aroused, I will endure the dark night
Resist my demons as they leave their lair

As time, embezzler of the lives it steals
We endure, suffer, but our fate, it seals