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 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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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!

All Night At The Coffin Works: How do you stay up all night to write?

I had very mixed feelings about this event, I’ll be honest.

It seemed like a good idea, back in the summer when I bought the tickets. The nights were warm and stretched out way beyond teatime. Now, it was early October and, while not exactly cold, it was darker and Halloween was approaching with some determination.

Imposing door front. It was now or never!
Imposing door front. It was now or never!

I have always been someone who gets spooked easily, and right until the moment the event started, I had some misgivings about whether or not I would ever sleep again.

A coffin works. All night. What the hell was I thinking…?!

We settled in, eyeing each other with wariness. Twenty writers, most of whom had clearly never met each other, snugly fit into the room. I was very glad I had invited a fellow Swanwicker, Lol Barnes, along to join me. At least I would have someone to hold my hand, I thought, if it got spooky later on Like, in the dead of night. If the lights went out. Or something…

First thing’s first though, a tour round the museum.

Well, Newman Brothers’ coffin works didn’t actually make coffins, as it happens. They were essentially a brass foundry, so they produced all the accessories to go with coffins. Brass plaques, plates, crucifixes and handles were stamped and polished before being shipped out to the undertakers, where they would fit them to the coffins, ready for the deceased to be laid to rest.

Example os brass stamping machinery, still in working order.
Example of brass stamping machinery, still in working order.

Our guide, Owen Edmunds, was hugely enthusiastic about the place. Despite the music thumping from a neighbouring nightclub, we could still appreciate the ambience of this strange monument to Birmingham’s industrial heyday.

He showed us first into the stamping room, the presses still functioning after all these years (since 1882 to be precise) and making a dreadful racket as they stamped the thin brass plates into shapes, ready to be nailed onto someone’s coffin.

After the stamping room, we were ushered into the main building to see the warehouse. Here we learned the difference between a coffin as a casket:

Caskets are seen mostly in the US and are rectangular-shaped, exactly the same width at the top and bottom. You’ll see a single long handle fitted down the entire length of the casket which can be used to carry the deceased to their final resting place. A coffin, however, is tapered to fit the size of a human body as it lies facing upwards. Typically, you’ll have several smaller handles running down the side of a coffin which people can use to carry their loved one.

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Unbelievable variety of accoutrements you can have fitted to your coffin these days. Who knew???

The factory also has a sewing room, where ladies carefully stitched the shrouds for the deceased, in a range of colours. You could even have one made in the colours of your favourite football team, if you so desired.

Finally, we arrived in the factory office, left exactly as it was approximately seventeen years ago, as if it had just been abandoned for an untimely fire drill. The late Joyce Green who was the Managing Director at the time, had even left her reading glasses on her desk. (Slightly unnerving!)

I have to say, as a writing event it is definitely the most unusual I have ever attended. The tutors were friendly and gave us plenty of exercises to complete, along with encouragement into the wee small hours and beyond.

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Despite being dog-tired, there was something about the accommodation which didn’t seem appealing…

I was really pleased that I finally got to try my hand at some poetry, something I’ve been rather reluctant to try before. I don’t know whether it was as a result of sleep-deprivation but at 5.30am I even managed to produce some half-decent haiku. Watch out for some more of that to come perhaps…!

Many thanks to the wonderful team at Newman Brothers for letting us come to your fabulous museum.

“But first, this….” Procrastination and How Writers Deal With It (Or Don’t)

This coming weekend is a bank holiday in England and Wales. I’ve taken time off from my full-time job today and tomorrow, with the sole purpose of getting some serious writing done over the break.

I have about six projects on the go at the moment, all at various stages of completion. Some have barely been started, with notes strewn about all over the place, so it’s not like I’m struggling to find things to do.

I woke around 7am this morning, and between then and the six hours until lunch, I have

  • cleaned my car (it was absolutely filthy, it has to be said);
  • been to the shop for breakfast materials (no milk in fridge);
  • made and eaten said breakfast;
  • tidied up the kitchen;
  • cleaned the inside of the dishwasher (OK, I just inserted some device into the machine and set it on the highest programme, but still…);
  • had a bubble bath (by this time, I needed it);
  • put a load of laundry into the washing machine;
  • painted my nails.

In short, I have procrastinated.

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Courtesy of TheFreeDictionary.com

Now I have covered this topic here before, but this is not an affliction which resolves itself overnight. One has to work hard to overcome this particular bane.

Friends on Facebook have provided a selection of responses. Writers in particular though, seem to be bothered by this condition more than most, and have responded more than everyone else too.

“Amateur! Come back when your hair’s in cornrows,” said one friend. She’s a talented screenwriter (and Master Procrastinator, clearly).

But the procrastination sufferer does not need this kind of idea placing into their head. I am now seriously considering taking a couple of hours out to plait my hair, having surfed the web to discover that cornrows are far too difficult to do on my own. That killed another half an hour, mind you.

I need to know that I’m not alone here. I want to hear your procrastination techniques, large and small. Nothing is too crazy here. Feel free to spill all. I’m a nice, kind person and you’re guaranteed a virtual hug at the end.

In the meantime, I’m off to bake some muffins, or something…

 

Magical Writing Retreat: Kerivoa

I can’t believe it’s only three weeks since I returned from The Write Retreat. It feels like such a long time ago now.

It was the first time I’d ever driven abroad, having previously always been on city break holidays where you walk around everywhere, or beach holidays which involve far too much alcohol to even consider driving. So, a new adventure awaited me as soon as I trundled off the ferry at Roscoff.

The journey to Katherine’s was very straightforward. I knew in advance that the French tend not to label their signs with road numbers as we do, so instead I chose to navigate by towns. The journey from Roscoff therefore, involved following signs first to Morlaix, then Guingamp, then Bourbriac, where Katherine met me and we drove up to the farmhouse.

Sipping bubbles on arrival. Katherine is such a wonderful hostess!
Sipping bubbles on arrival. Katherine is such a wonderful hostess!

The site of the farmhouse is an old Bronze Age settlement (the old bread oven still stands a little way off the main track) and I got a sense of something very special about the place as soon as I arrived. The tranquility is almost palpable.

As regular followers of this blog will be only too aware, I adore animals, so I was overjoyed when Katherine’s Westie, Kerrig, put in an appearance, closely followed by Merlin, the gorgeous black Labrador and finally, the wonderful cat, Fifi, who took a particular shine to me for the entire week. I fancy he sensed I was missing Lily so made it his mission to fulfil surrogate pet duty!

Easter Saturday meant a trip to Guingamp to sample a little shopping and practice my very rusty French. Luckily, I got by rather well and purchased gifts for family and friends before setting off back to the farmhouse for Katherine’s delicious cooking and my writing. (Well, that was the reason I was there, after all!)

Guingamp Market square, Easter Saturday. The obligatory visit to the chocolaterie!
Guingamp Market square, Easter Saturday. The obligatory visit to the chocolaterie!

Sadly, that was the last we saw of sunshine for a good few days. However, I was there to write so it didn’t matter a jot. And, write I did. Lots. Over the course of the week, I wrote no less than seven chapters of my new book.

When I arrived at Kerivoa, I had three chapters completed for what I thought was going to be a short erotic novella. This has now morphed into a larger work, incorporating more characters and venturing off into a paranormal romance direction with just a couple of erotic scenes. Funny how that happens!

Beautiful Fifi - just the most perfect muse one could possibly wish for!
Beautiful Fifi – just the most perfect muse one could possibly wish for!

I achieved so much during that week, that I am now afflicted with trying to recreate that atmosphere here at home, which is easier said than done. I have the cat, yes, but I also have a full-time job, laundry, cleaning, tidying and other procrastinating, which is driving me mad.

On top of those things, I also have some wonderful friends who are writing and publishing new books which I want to read, so I do feel as though I’m spinning lots of plates right now. Having said that, it’s a fantastic feeling to have, as I know I shall never suffer from boredom ever again!

Writing outdoors, with Fifi and Merlin.
Writing outdoors, with Fifi and Merlin.

The best single thing about my week was Katherine’s support and encouragement to follow the story and her gift for creating a truly magical and inspiring setting, even when the heavens opened and I was mooching around in my PJs and slippers!

So, back to the retreat I shall have to go. Probably not this year, what with Swanwick looming and not being able to take any more time off work than I already have planned. I believe I shall make it a priority for 2015 though.

Watch this space!

 

 

Merry Christmas Everyone!

So, here we are. I’ve arrived in West Cumbria, chez Mama and Papa, amid severe gales and showers of both sleet and hail. To make matters worse,  the distraught feline on the back seat made her displeasure all too obvious by howling for most of the journey.

So tempers were frayed to start with, before I learned that my father’s broadband connection has been reset and so the network and password data on the back of his router is useless. Cue a phone call to TALKTALK to get it all sorted.

Now, I am not the most patient person in the world as it is. So, I consider today to have been a triumph, since I have not lost my temper with anyone yet. However, it’s only just gone dark. There’s plenty of time before bed!

So, as I settle into a Christmas with my family, as I’m sure many of you will be doing, it’s time to reflect on a year of success for my fledgling writing career. And also to look forward to how it will likely leap forward in 2014.

By far, one of the most wonderful experiences was my first week at Swanwick which I shall treasure forever. Meeting so many talented writers and being immersed in a literary world was such an inspiration. Certainly, it gave me confidence and courage to write more than before and with a more determined purpose.

Visiting authors at book tours has also become an inspirational pastime which I look forward to doing much more of in 2014. Both Elizabeth Gilbert and Mark Forsyth have given me food for thought about my next steps into the world of authoring.

I have been writing my short stories which, as many of you know, will be published under my pseudonym sometime in January. One of my tasks over the holidays is to browse through thousands of book covers to choose just the right ones for my stories.

All very exciting stuff for someone who, less than twelve months ago, didn’t know whether this was just a passing phase that I would get bored of eventually. Although I do still get moments of self-doubt, as I believe most writers do from time to time, I believe I’ve made great progress this year.

So, if you’re a dedicated follower of this blog, first of all I’d like to say a huge “Thank you!” and also give you a taster of what’s to come in the next few months.

Short stories published for the kindle and available through Amazon only to start with. Watch this space or check my Facebook page () for details.

I’m off to Brittany in France for a writing retreat at Easter, another in Rome in June and then Swanwick again in August to top up on inspiration and meet up with my writing friends.

I also plan to be developing a website for my alter ego to help promote my kindle stories so look out for more on that. So, with that and continuing this blog, I shall be a very busy lady.

Finally, I have this novel which has been swimming around in my head for a while and really needs to get onto the page. So, there’ll be more work on that from to time.

So, all that remains is for me to wish you and all your loved ones a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year 2014!

Exeter Writing Retreat

One of the most wonderful things I have gained by joining the Urban Writers’ website (http://www.urbanwritersretreat.co.uk/) is a community of fellow writers, all experiencing the same problems and insecurities as me.

This is very important, since writers by their very nature, tend to be rather solitary. When I sit down to write, I must have no distractions. No TV or music and, especially, no chatter. Almost any noise (including hungry cat meows) is enough to put me off my pen strokes.

However, it’s surprising how easy it is to become distracted by all sorts of things. One can quickly gain experience in the Black Art of Procrastination, suddenly getting an urge to grab the hoover and do a bit of tidying round the house. And I am not a tidy person, trust me. All this home-making lark does not come naturally to me.

So, imagine my excitement when I spotted a retreat in Exeter where I could escape the house for a day. I packed my laptop, my fountain pen, spare cartidges, my notebooks and off I went. (Click here for more info.)

The weather was gorgeous when I got there. It was easily the sunniest day of the year so far. I found my way around the city, parked up and went to the venue to meet my fellow writers.

There were five of us altogether, including the lady who runs these things. We kicked off at around 10.30 and I left around 5pm. We had a half hour or so for a lunch break where we discussed our projects. One lady turned up all excited as she had just had her story accepted for publication. We were all thrilled for her.

In that time, I managed to create 3 characters for my novel and write an entire 3000-word short story, albeit a first draft. In short, I managed to accomplish more in that day, than I had done previously in perhaps two weeks.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m going to be able to drive down to Exeter every month. It’s a fair old distance from my place and therefore quite a long drive.

However, they do offer online retreats too, which I may well partake of in the near future. I look forward to catching up with my new-found writing friends.