Atwood’s Masterpiece Brought To Life

*** SPOILER ALERT *** DO NOT READ THIS POST IF YOU ARE WAITING TO SEE THE FIRST EPISODE ON CATCHUP TV!

I was in my early twenties when I first read The Handmaid’s Tale and I was utterly horrified by the concept of Gilead, the dystopian world in which Atwood set her groundbreaking novel.

Fast forward twenty years, and I still find it disturbing, macabre and terrifyingly possible in today’s society.

Due to a nuclear catastrophe, there are a limited number of women who remain fertile, known as Handmaids. They are sent to somewhere called The Red Centre to learn how to submit themselves to a family where the wife cannot have children. It is explained to them that their role in society is to bear surrogate children on behalf of these wealthy but barren women. Dressed in an outfit not dissimilar to that of a nun but scarlet red, they are to perform something known as The Ceremony on a regular basis. Essentially, the Handmaid is held down by the arms of the wife on the bed and raped by the husband.

The horror on Offred’s face tells us she despises what is happening to her, but she is wise enough not to struggle. What good would that do? More interesting is the reaction of the wife after the deed is done and the husband has left the room. She throws the Handmaid out of the room too, and we are party to a moment where the wife becomes emotional. Is she hurt because it is difficult to watch her husband being intimate with another woman? Is she hurt because of her infertility which has driven them to this situation? Does she feel her own lack of femininity, her inadequacy at being unable to bear children? But she is a woman too and in Gilead, her status is no higher than Offred’s, although she is married to a wealthy man. She too has no choice over what happens to her if and when a child is born. The human race must continue, at whatever the cost.

It was great to see Atwood herself taking a cameo role in the production, delivering a slap across Offred’s face during a training session at The Red Centre. The image is hazy and blurred, but the silhouette is unmistakeable.

At the end of the episode, we learn that Offred’s friend from before the disaster, Moira, is dead. Offred channels her anger and grief towards a man who has been convicted of raping a Handmaid. Supposedly, there is nothing to protect the Handmaids at their conscripted homes with families but out on the streets they are not to be touched.

Offred is first to deliver a blow to the convict and, between them, the Handmaids beat the man to death. It seems this act of uncontrolled violence succeeds in ensuring that the Handmaids remain calm during their given assignments. Channeling their aggression in this way seems their only release from what is happening to them.

Perhaps one of the most frightening things about this Gilead place is that the Handmaids are all given new names, to remind them that their lives from before have no significance here. We learn that Offred’s real name is June and her child has been taken from her. There is a sense that she is biding her time until an opportunity arises for her to get her back. Roll on episode two; I hope I have the stamina to continue to watch the whole series.

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POSTSCRIPT

The reality is that now, over thirty years later, there are women in the  real world today who have no say over their bodies, who are vessels for child-bearing and have no control over their own destinies. Female Genital Mutilation and the abortion of female foetuses are horrific truths that continue to this day, in a city or a town near you, even here in the UK.

And some folk think that feminism is outdated and unnecessary…

The Value of Community: another story from the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School

Time and time again, you will hear people talk fondly of the friendliness of the delegates at Swanwick. Unlike some other conferences, there is no pressure to meet agents or engage in furious networking, but this contribution from Rita Berman shows us how, even in the most laid-back atmosphere, the contacts we make on our writing journeys can never be underestimated.
I travelled from the USA to attend Swanwick in 1988, 1999, 2002, and 2004. 
 
Not only did I learn from a number of professional authors, and meet many delightful people but I also gave talks about my experience as a freelance writer.
 
Hugh Rae, who taught novel writing in 1999, guided me in the writing of my mystery-novel, The Key, which I published in 2014.  The same year, I met Elena Sollewijn-Gelpe from Brussels and in 2002 while we were at Swanwick helped her proof her book Bullets in the Bedroom.
 
I interviewed Judith Spelman, one of the speakers at Swanwick in 2002, and published it online at Absolute Write  in 2004.
 
For a week-long immersion into all aspects of writing, comfortable accommodation,  good food and pleasant surroundings, you can’t beat Swanwick.
 
Parallel Lives, was published in 2016. It is a memoir of growing up in London during the Blitz in the Second World War.  It is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in Kindle and paper-back versions.
London-born, RITA BERMAN is a freelance writer, lecturer, editor, and author of Parallel Lives (2016), The Key (2014), The Dating Adventures of A Widow (2013), Still Hopping, Still Hoping: the biography of Carla Shuford (2012) and The A-Z of Writing and Selling (1981). Her memoir, I Saw London Burning, appeared in Celebrating Family History, Heritage Books, 2005. Berman also contributed to Journey Proud, Carolina Press, 1994.

Her publications include more than 600 articles and lectures, in magazines and newspapers both here in the UK and in the USA.

If you’d like to learn more about her, her online home can be found here.

A Swanwick Story: Julia Pattison

Regular visitors to this blog will be familiar with my frequent mention of a place called Swanwick, a village in Derbyshire, UK, and home to the longest-running (we believe) writing conference in the world.

It has been an integral part of my own writing journey and, since taking up the post of School Archivist last August, I was interested to learn how much the Writers’ School has influenced other delegates. So, I sent a request via the newsletter for people to share their stories.

The beautiful and inspirational Julia Pattison responded with this most unusual tale:

I first met Clifford Beck at Swanwick Writers’ Summer School back in 1999. He became a good friend, and over the years he’d tell me anecdotes of his time as a Far East Prisoner of War.

Julia with Clifford, Swanwick Writers’ Summer School, 2004

At Swanwick 2004 we were sat on our favourite bench enjoying a chat in the summer sunshine, when he mentioned that the following August 15th 2005, it would be the 60th Anniversary of VJ Day. With a deep sigh that touched my heart, he went on to say that it would be his dream to stand once again on the Bridge on the River Kwai, not as a prisoner this time, but as a free man.

He had planned to go with his wife Esther, but sadly she’d died some years previously, and his son Nick didn’t want to make the journey. On impulse, I said that we could make his special pilgrimage together the following Easter holiday, and the seeds for the journey were sown…

Not far short of his 90th birthday, his health had deteriorated considerably since our conversation that summer day at Swanwick, so although he had hoped to walk across the bridge, he was content to walk the few steps up to the entrance of the Bridge, where a kindly passing tourist took our photo to capture his dreamed- for moment. We then spent some time in the beautifully kept Kanchanaburi Cemetery where he said prayers over the graves of some of his fellow FEPOWs who had never made it home. Afterwards we were met by Rod Beattie, the founder of the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre ( honoured with the MBE for his research )  who gave us a private tour of the Centre. I recall that Clifford became particularly emotional when Rod took him into a reconstructed cattle truck, as it brought back vivid memories of his horrendous journey from Singapore.

The Bridge over the River Kwai

He never did get to Swanwick in 2005, or to go with me to the Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial Centre near Laxton, Nottinghamshire, but died in June 2005. His son Nick comforted me by saying how much the trip had meant to his father, and that despite being so unwell, he had been determined to make the pilgrimage back to the Bridge on the River Kwai in March 20015 – probably with the same spirit that had stood him in such good stead during his time as a FEPOW. He had died a happy man, and had been looking forward to meeting everyone at his beloved Swanwick Writers’ Summer School.

Rest in Peace Clifford, a true officer and a gentleman, and an inspiration to all who knew him.

It was a privilege to help him fulfil his dream, and to record his story for the history archives.

Lest we forget.

Julia Pattison

You can purchase Clifford’s memoirs, written by Julia, at the Amazon UK store here.

The Tempest v Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood rewrites a Shakespeare masterpiece

As a Patron of the Royal Shakespeare Company, I am lucky enough to get advance notice of the next season’s productions and when I learned that the RSC were performing The Tempest, I was thrilled. It’s not a play I had seen before and nor did I know the story.

Imagine then, if you will, how excited I was to learn that one of my favourite authors, Margaret Atwood, had been commissioned to rewrite the story of The Tempest in novel form. Bingo!

The Tempest starts with a great storm, during which the King of Naples and his entourage, including the Duke of Milan, are shipwrecked. Watching this drama unfold is Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda.

It becomes clear that Prospero has conjured the storm himself with the help of the sprite, Ariel, because this group are his enemies. Indeed, the Duke of Milan is in fact his brother, Antonio, who betrayed him for the title of Duke some twelve years previously.

Now, to Hag-Seed. Our Prospero has become one Felix Duke, renowned theatre director who gets unceremoniously sacked and ends up working in a prison where he teaches Shakespeare to the inmates. His latest project is… Yup, you guessed it, The Tempest.

Felix’s Miranda is not real, she is a memory he has recreated and transposed into the present as a mechanism to deal with the grief at losing his daughter.

Estelle pulls strings for Felix, both inside the prison and in organising the visit of the politicos. She is the Ariel to Felix’s Prospero, creating the ‘storm’ which brings them to him.

Just like Prospero, Felix exacts his revenge during the production but afterwards feels strangely unfulfilled. The result is an anticlimax. What does this teach us about the nature of revenge, methinks? Is it really worth it? Or shall we just hold our heads high, despite the injustice inflicted by those who wronged us?

All in all, a fantastic production of The Tempest by the RSC, as one would expect, and an amazing work by Ms Atwood. Again, no surprises there. Well worth the time on both counts, if you have the opportunity.

Yummy School Project!

Many years ago, as I was nearing the end of sixth form and thinking about university, I acquired a penpal from France.
Claire lived in Brittany with her mother, father and sister. As teenage girls do, we chatted mainly about our respective school lives and our hopes and dreams for the future.
So much deliciousness!
Fast forward twenty-odd years. The magic of Facebook has kept our friendship alive, although the tone has changed somewhat. Nowadays we discuss the impact of Brexit and whether or not I should move to France!
Claire is now married with two children, living near Paris and teaching English at this school. She also adores chocolate. Or, more appropriately, her students do.
It was this love of chocolate which fuelled Claire’s imagination to undertake an unusual school project –  to create a recipe book, in English, written entirely by her students.

Ah…. Chocolate! One of my favourite topics, as my ample hips will testify.

Imagine, then, if you will, what a delight it was when Claire asked me to help with the translation of her students’ recipes into English.

And what a wonderful surprise when, some months later, I received a copy of a book containing said recipes in the post. It even has my name in the back. (Sadly, this book is not available on Amazon. Boo hiss!)

On that note, I’m off to make some brownies. Bon appetit!

To Walk Invisible: a Tribute to a Yorkshire family

Goodness! If you want heart-wrenching drama, you need look no further than the North York moors. Last night I watched To Walk Invisible, a BBC dramatisation of the life of the Bronte sisters.

To my shame, although both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are two of my most-loved ‘classic’ novels, I must confess I knew little of the struggles of their respective authors’ domestic lives.

I was introduced to these classic novels partly by my mother, but also due to reading lists for English Literature classes at school. I read Jane Austen many years ago (during my school days, in fact) and her novels enjoy legendary status across the world, even today. But she produced stories that examine the quest for a suitable matrimonial match among the genteel English society into which she was born. They are hardly life or death situations, per se.

Austen couldn’t possibly have imagined the frustration of three sisters, united only in their despair for their wayward brother as he succumbed to his demons doing his level best to tear the family apart as he did so.

Few women back then published novels. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), writing around the same time, wrote under a pseudonym in order to be taken seriously. The Brontes were a well-educated family for their position, being daughters of the widowed Reverend Bronte, but their education appears to have been somewhat haphazard, starting off at a school, but then being removed by their father and taught a little at home after their two older sisters (Maria and Elizabeth) had contracted tuberculosis.

It occurs to me that perhaps it is only in enduring the seemingly bottomless pit of such torment that we, as writers, find tales of such extraordinary passion. They do say that it is only by knowing sadness that we can identify happiness when we find such a thing.

I shall ponder on this thought as I begin compiling my Must Do list for 2017.

Item #1 – a visit to Haworth!

The Wild Writer Within Us All

So, here it is. A brief account of my final writing-related travel experience of 2016:

I don’t visit France anything like as often as I would like, and it’s been many years since I was in the south. Let me assure you, I will certainly not be waiting as long until my next visit.

I had been looking forward to a retreat with fellow Swanwick devotee Bridget Holding at her Wild Words nature retreat ever since the moment I returned from Swanwick back in August. (Goodness, that feels like such a long time ago!)

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The setting sun casts its pink glow on Bugarach Peak.
 Day One consisted of meeting and greeting my fellow retreaters, Susan and Catherine, and settling down to a delicious banquet, cooked by chef and host, Sander, and washed down by generous amounts of local wine, which is included in the price of your stay at the Le Presbytere.

The garden is beautifully well-kept by his partner Rommie, and they grow most of their own fruit and vegetables which are beautifully presented at every meal.

A hearty and healthy breakfast in the morning preceded some time spent with Bridget who gave us exercises to flex our writing muscles. In the afternoon, we went for a walk to the nearby lake, which sits directly at the foot of Bugarach Peak.

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I can vouch for this lake being as fresh and exciting to swim in as it looks. Honestly!

Braving the coolness of the water, we went for a dip. This was my first time swimming in ‘open water’ in recent years and it really was exhilarating. It was nice to emerge on the bank not smelling of chlorine and being able to bask in late afternoon sunshine to dry off. I might see if I can find anywhere local where I can relive the experience, albeit probably next Spring/Summer now!

On the Wednesday we visited a magical waterfall and sat around discussing movement, writing poetic descriptions of the thunderous phenomenon. I spent some time pondering our natural world, and how we fail to acknowledge so much of it in our day to day lives; the others decided to go for another open water dip. By all accounts it was way colder than the lake, so I was pleased to transfer to the thermal pond we found a little way down the road!

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Lunch at Le Presbytere is usually of the takeaway variety, but since we stayed close to the house most days, Sander concocted some terrific salads for us to enjoy.

Thursday’s weather was a challenge. The forecast said rain, and my injured foot told me a long walk would be unwise, so after a tremendous session on plotting and structure in the morning, I retreated to the solace of my room while the others went off into the wild.

Just a few moments later, the sky darkened. It felt like the mountains were closing in on us, huddling in a rugby scrum with the village underneath. Thunder rolled in the distance, advancing like an angry army across the sky.

I went downstairs to see whether my fellow guests had returned but instead found the pets unsettled so I chose to stay with them while the storm did battle above. As torrential rain battered the landscape and wild flashes of lightning lit up the sky we sat indoors, dry and safe. It must have looked strange. One human female, two dogs and two cats all trying to fit onto a sofa!

The ladies had a truly wild experience though. They eventually came back, soaked to the skin and having tramped through hailstone showers while trying not to get stuck underneath trees!

I was really sad to leave on Friday, especially since Susan and Catherine were staying another day, but unfortunately the flights were not favourable, and I had a date with Margaret Atwood at the RST to keep the following morning, so I had to say my goodbyes.

It’s been an amazing week in the Corbieres mountains at the foothills of the Pyrenees. I will certainly be back this way some time soon…

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Look at the laughter in our eyes! From L to R: Susan, Rommie, Sander, Catherine, me. Thanks to Bridget for taking this photo.

 

 

 

 

 

First Drafts – Getting The Story On The Page

2016 has been a great summer for writing activities, and it’s far from over.

Following the Dublin Writers’ Conference in June, I spent a blissful week at Swanwick in August and, in October, I shall be jetting off to the South of France for a retreat with the lovely Bridget Holding and her Wild Words, which I’m really looking forward to.

All in all, it promises to be a wholly creative period for me, especially as I am working on completing the next in the Lost Souls series, The Plain Truth.

But, here’s the thing. It’s sooooooo hard!

You see, in the short space of time that I have been writing (about four years), I have discovered something really important about the way I write books:

I’m really good at starting things, but I’m really rubbish at finishing them.

In fact, this applies to all sorts of things in my life, not just writing. So, my one single goal for 2016 has been to concentrate on finding ways of being able to finish my books, in the hopes that I can transfer these skills to other areas of my life too.

I was thrilled, therefore to meet Sheila Bugler in Dublin and attend her course on Getting Your First Draft Done.

I learned an enormous amount from this course. Two things in particular stood out for me:

Firstly, I don’t usually set myself a daily word count. This is probably because I don’t want the feeling of failure if I don’t hit it every day. To rectify this, Sheila gave us some simple exercises to help hit the count. I am now regularly hitting at least 500 words a day, and around 1500 at the weekends. Yay!

The second piece of advice I took away was to try not to listen to my inner editor. This is really difficult for me (especially as I am now a trained editor and proofreader!) so I decided to choose a different place in the house to do my writing, completely separate from my editing. Anywhere, in fact, other than my desk. Sometimes I’m sitting up in bed, sometimes I’m on the sofa. Last night, I scribbled a few sentences while perched on the kitchen table.

Fantastic, I thought. Armed with this new advice, I trotted off to Swanwick to see if I could learn more. One of the courses I had in mind was delivered by Michael Jecks and entitled Plotting and Stratagems.

From Michael’s course, I learned that my usual reason for getting stuck halfway into a novel is that I don’t plan well enough, so I took away some guidance for planning chapters. Hopefully, this will help with the problem as I make my way through book two in the Lost Souls series.

Speaking of which, I am eagerly anticipating my trip to South West France and being on retreat. I shall only be there for 3 full days, but I often surprise myself how much I can get through in a short space of time when I really get my head down and write with no distractions.

More news soon! Au revoir…

Local SfEP Meetup – South Warwickshire Editors and Proofreaders

My journey into the ‘Dark Side’ continues!

I’m joking, of course. Editing other authors’ work is giving me valuable insight into how to improve my own writing. I am also finding that I am in a position to be able to advise fellow indie authors about their work, having been in their position.

Being the sociable creature I am, I was thrilled to learn that there is a local South Warwickshire group of SfEP members, so I went along to their bi-monthly meeting to say hello and find out more.

It turns out that there are other editors who walk the line between editing and writing, in fact it turns out that some of us have mutual friends in people I have met through going to Swanwick.

I look forward to meeting up regularly with this bunch, and sharing tips and stories. Watch this space!

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Chillin’ and chattin’ at The Lounge, Leamington Spa

 

Swanwick 2016 – The Magic Continues…

The Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick, Derbyshire
Swanwick Dinner
Communal dining room at the Hayes. Picture courtesy of Geoff Parkes (far left in the photo).

Sadly, I didn’t get to go to the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School in 2015. I had a very sick cat at home and no idea how long she had left on this mortal plane so, as heartbreaking as it was, I decided to stay with her in her final weeks. It was definitely the right decision.

No such emotional trauma this year, thankfully, and I couldn’t wait to bundle up the car and head off to Derbyshire for another memorable week of friendship nurturing and raucous laughter. I wasn’t disappointed.

After the initial settling in period, it was time to get my books across to the book room. This year was the first time I had my own book to sell, which was wonderful experience. So, too, for Mark Iveson and his non-fiction book Cursed Horror Stars.

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Mark Iveson and me, proudly displaying our own published books in the Swanwick Book Room for the first time.

The first full day saw me sat in a fascinating specialist course on Character Psychology with Steve Hartley. Such a great course, packed with interesting material for creating interesting characters for our stories.

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The incorrigible Phil Collins appreciating how I managed to pour myself into a corset!

Monday evening during Swanwick week features the infamous Fancy Dress Disco.

I do like this photo of me with dear friend Phil Collins. I can’t remember how much I had to drink by this point. I certainly wasn’t sober!

This year’s theme was Heroes and Villains. I chose Maleficent (any excuse to get out my corset); Phil’s pirate outfit turned a few heads too!

 

I set out to make sure I attended short courses which I felt would be of direct use to my own writing experience. This year, Michael Jecks gave phenomenal instructions about plotting and tips for bulldozing through writers’ block. I came away refreshed with lots of ideas for my novel.

Similarly, lovely Sue Moorcroft‘s course gave invaluable insight into the finer points of writing fiction. All in all, it was an exhilarating, if not exhausting, week of learning.

On the last day, after the AGM and the raffle to win a free place at Swanwick the following year, everyone disappeared back to their rooms to dress up for the Dregs Party. It’s a great excuse to bring out those cocktail dresses and a few of the guys even brought their tuxedos for the occasion.

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Dregs Party on the hallowed Swanwick lawn. Thankfully, the rain stayed away!

Some exciting things to note for me personally this year: I made my acting debut! A very small part during the renowned Page to Stage extravaganza was quickly followed on the last night by the Final Night Pantomime.

Written by Simon Hall, The Battle of Writers’ Block tells a humorous tale of an aspiring but self-conscious writer, Trevor, who is trying to write a novel. Haunted by the twin sisters of Doubt and Success, he is persuaded to take a trip to Swanwick Writers’ Summer School, where he receives the inspiration to finish his story. Lots of gags and a healthy dose of innuendo had the audience howling with laughter, thankfully!

Cast of this year’s pantomime, The Battle of Writers’ Block, written by Simon Hall. L-R: Lesley Deschener, Phil Collins, me, Simon Hall, Cathy Grimmer, Marion Hough, John Lamont. Photo courtesy of Louise Cahill.

Finally, the opportunity came along for me to play a part in helping the school. The archivist was wanting to step down, and so a vacancy popped up for someone organised who can help collate all the various documents that Swanwick has amassed over its 68-year history. I am looking forward to taking on this challenge and I’m hoping to start getting it into some kind of electronic format soon.

Swanwick Lawn
Chatting on the lawn. Picture courtesy of Geoff Parkes

All in all, it was another fantastic Swanwick experience, full of friendships. Special thank you to Geoff Parkes for the use of a couple of his photographs in this post.

Hope to see you all next year for another week of writing mayhem!