Friday, March 17, 2017

Famous last lines

At Royston Writers’ Circle last night we had a fun exercise – to write a story that ended in a famous last line.  Harder than it sounds! Starting off is easy, but finding your way to that last line… well it provided some entertaining stories from the nine members present.  A lost dementia patient, a delightful vision of aging, to a sci fi adventure as man lands on a new distant planet … that’s what I love about RWC. Always plenty of variety.

The line we chose to finish with was from Margaret Attwood’s “Cat’s Eye”.  Here’s my story – but I must add the caveat that as you don’t know where you are going when you start writing (usually). After reading out the story to the others (we all read out if we want to), I changed the main character’s name on the group’s recommendation.  I called him Greg, but from here on, it’s Grug!  Written in half an hour, here it is, warts and all, unedited.

A thousand years away one day

Grug was a Shagi. That meant he was bottom of the social pile. He was pushed brutally out of the was by a Casquer.  Their powerful arms, impressive of course, but even so a Casquer would have been no match for a Shagi in a good fight.  Nonetheless Grug gave way, allowing the higher status female to move down the narrow tunnel ahead of him.  He grunted a brief dissatisfaction and immediately she turned to glare at him.  He dropped his head low, avoiding her gaze, and avoiding a fight that he could win – but dare not.

Grug was young and inexperienced and it showed. But he was also growing angry as he grew up.  There’s nothing like learning your place to learn that you don’t like it.  Grug had asked his elders why they must always acquiesce to the Casquers, and they always said “They are the keepers of light. Without them we are in darkness and lost”.  A bitter litany.

It had always been so amongst the tunnel people.  If you had a light, you had power.  But this confused Grug, who like most Shagi could navigate well enough without light.  He was also more curious than many of his peers, and indeed his betters. The fish, the spiders, the other creatures that shared their world, they did not even have eyes! They did not flock to the light or the warmth of the Casquers’ lanterns.

It is as if, Grug thought, we should know light better than we do. All of us, not just those high born.  Grug had learned to keep these questions to himself though. Overheard comments had earned him punishment rotas in the deep pits. He didn’t mind the dark, but he hated the cold water and the multitude of bones – stark reminders of the Hypocaust Wars.  

Once the Casquer has gone, Grug took a rock and threw it with all his might against the wall. His frustration must have given him greater strength than he knew, for a cascading rumble and a rock fall ensued.  And then, something new appeared.

The Casquer and her lantern had gone – no other Casquers were about, no one but him. And yet… and yet he knew his world had just changed.  The air tasted different and it moved strangely against him – like his mother’s hand ruffling his hair. He stared hard. The shape of the rocks and the path were clear. The moving air drew him closer to where the rocks had fallen and, he realised, they revealed a new tunnel.

This new tunnel was huge – so big he could not see the sides, so big he could not see the roof. But he knew there must be a high roof as he could see light – a myriad of small lights not harvested by the Casquers.  It was a strange sight - and it moved him.  Hi heart quickened, excitedly.  This dim, distant miracle might lift him up very high indeed.
“It’s old light, and there’s not much of it, but it’s enough to see by.”

Critique away! This story is very naive and there’s plenty of opportunities to improve, but I thought I would share what we do for fun once a month at Royston Writers’ Circle

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Ghost writing

No, not writing for someone else, so that they can claim authorship under your talent, but the writing of things ghostly.

My friend today posted a ghost picture on Facebook she took  in broad daylight - and it's a ghostly shape indeed.  Ghost? Maybe, maybe not. Depends on your definition of what a ghost actually is.  I've just put one of my stories into YouTube to share - there is a CD of my short ghost stories available (contact me and I can sell you one - can't give 'em away, sorry), and this is one story from this collection.

I enjoyed putting visuals to the story, but it's really for listening to, not watching. But why did I write a few ghost stories? Because, like my friend on Facebook today, I've been aware of the presence what we call ghosts in my own life. And they do say write what you know.

The Resident is actually based on a true story - we lived with a ghost for around 20 years. Many popular ghost stories are scary - the poltergeist that destroys or disrupts, the ghost that reenacts, or the ones that simply scare you witless. But I think there are probably far more benign ghosts out there like ours that don't give you a horrible fright. They are just there, not doing any harm, but certainly giving you the occasional start.

What are ghosts? I'm open to any interpretation you like - from Stone Tape Theory to good old fashioned spirits. Oh, and of course a good healthy dose of human imagination, visual distortion (a great one for the 'grey ladies')  and indeed pranksterism (I know that isn't a word, but it fits).

In my personal experience there have been incidents that are impossible to explain, even with all the options considered. But most of my stories are fiction - good old fashioned story telling designed to entertain and intrigue, rather than to scare. 

If you have five minutes to spare, do listen to The Resident. It's not the most polished piece of work, but even so I hope you find it entertaining.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Letter to my brother

Dear Phil

Well, 2017 – we are both another year older.  Time flies by too quickly.  My son is now quarter of a century old, and my daughter lives with her partner and his daughter. She's just told me she's going to Texas for a holiday with her company!  

I am separated and live with my son and his cat, and mother lives in sheltered accommodation.  She is going blind, but still as feisty as ever.  Alex will be moving out this year too, so it will just be me and the cat.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to catch up with you – a proper catch up.  I’ve tried to keep you up to date with important milestones, through this blog, but oh what a lot we would have to talk about if we met up again.

This has been a one way conversation, and that’s OK, I know it’s your choice. But I would like to know what you have been doing, your life, loves, what you enjoy and what you can’t stand. What do you think of the political situation, or do you even care?

You don’t choose family, you choose friends, but it was nice when we were younger when we were able to be both.

This is just a short letter, to say I am thinking of you and wish you well. And here's a recent photo of me in my garden, at my summer party. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

RWC Does Christmas

Tonight we had the last Writers’ Circle meeting before Christmas. We planned our usual writing exercise for this time of year – a kind of writers’ ‘consequences’ – each person writing one paragraph of a single story.  With nine of us in the room, we decided on passing our paragraphs a maximum of five times.  But to add a bit more challenge, we were all given the same starting sentence, and had to include a different, randomly selected word each round.

So – nine writers – nine different styles, five different writers per story, each round just five minutes (seven for the last, time to wrap it up!).  Then they were all read out.  Steve laughed so much he could not see to read and passed his story to me. I started laughing so much I could barely read it either, especially when it came to the nose flying past the face after the carrot exploded.  Perhaps everyone can write down their stories, so we can share more. But in the meantime, here’s a summary that sort of tells you how RWC ‘do’ Christmas… 

On the 15th of December, thus wrote RWC…
Nine laughing writers
Several explosions
Six soft drinks (no alcohol needed!)
Five household chores
Four brutal murders
Three dead pets (we want to rename the group ‘The Dead Pets’ Society’)
Two prosthetic legs
One flying nose
And a mouse in a Christmas treeeeeeeee

Anyway, to give you an idea of how this mad exercise actually works, here’s the story that I started.

‘Twas the night before Christmas and the mouse was hiding. Fed up with being made to perform every night, he hid behind the Christmas tree and the star. He could hear his mother calling, “Alejandro!” but he ignored her and just hunkered down even further.  The tree was lit by small twinkling lights that annoyed him. Sometimes they were yellow like the sun, or red like fire, or green like the tree.  He liked the white ones a bit – they were calm and unpretentious.  “Alejandro!” he almost jumped out of his skin.

Scurrying up the tree, he wove his way through the decorations, swinging on the tinsel, bouncing off a soft, portly Santa and eventually arriving at the very top. He peeped out behind the star and chuckled at the freshly shed carpet of tree needles he had created. The lady of the house would grumble at how easily these trees shed nowadays when she came into the living room in the morning.  It was a very tall tree but it was nothing to a daredevil like Alejandro. He stood on his hind legs and surveyed the room.  

But this year for the first time, Alejandro lost his footing on the top branch and was in danger of falling. The only way he could save himself was to wrap his tail around the angel’s left foot.  What was more disconcerting was that he was now visible to the humans sitting around the cosy warm room drinking whisky and other drinks.

He was sitting sprawled in the chair, wearing the Christmas jumper depicting a jolly Santa laughing, hands on his belly.  “Oh look Mabel, that tree’s swaying.”
“Oh Mabel, that angel’s got a pet dog on a lead.”

“Oh my god, Mabel. MABEL! The dog is pulling the angel off the tree!”
There was an enormous crack, a tiny squeak and a loud scream. Santa’s belly could be seen no more, the human was beneath the fallen tree.  Alejandro ran.

Talk about complete chaos. When can we get the place tidied up? Think I’ll have a coffee just to see if it gives me a new lease of life. Do I hear singing in the distance; is it the church choir doing a bit of collecting for charity?

As you can see –  nonsense, but imagine nine of these mad stories, including everything from a Santa does 50 Shades to spooky child murderers, and you get just a small insight into why the Royston Writers Circle is a great place to learn, to write, and to have fun.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Proud to be a fundraiser

Virtually everyone accesses charitable services at some time in their lives, whether it’s receiving advice on debt, mental health support, playground equipment for children, protecting vulnerable individuals or supporting people with life threatening diseases.  Seriously – take a close look at your life and you will find multiple interactions with organizations that you may not even realise were charities.  In these times of austerity, the government are relying more and more on charities to deliver key services, whilst at the same time cutting the funding available. 

I studied for the IoF Diploma in Fundraising in 2015

Charities need a way to achieve their charitable objects; whilst the use of volunteers is invaluable, you cannot run the sector on volunteers alone.  Finance, for example, is not a job for the enthusiastic amateur, especially where a charity’s turnover may run into millions. There are roles within charities that can be very well performed by volunteers, and there are roles that need professionals with specialist skills and expertise.  Charities need to be managed effectively and efficiently, and they need the right staff and tools to achieve this. They all face their different challenges – for a charity that delivers mosquito nets to Africa, for example, your donation must not only cover the cost of a net, but the procurement, storage and transport of the net, secure money handling (and measures against corruption along the way), and the staff needed to complete all the processes needed to ensure safe delivery to the beneficiary.  For a charity that helps homeless people, they need premises, utilities, food, health and safety for the volunteers and staff, and sometimes even protection from those they seek to help. To support medical research, you need a charity that understands the science and can allocate your donation to the most promising research; it would be exceedingly hard to give directly to medical research without expert knowledge.

Charities come under fire for professionalization of the sector, but without professionals, your donation could be less effective.  

In order for any charity to have the funds it needs to deliver its charitable objects, most charities must ask for the money it needs – whether that is from governments, trusts and foundations, wealthy individuals or the general public.  

I am aware that there are scammers and poor practice in all sectors, but it is by no means as prevalent in the third sector as the media implies.  ‘Charity does good job, helps people’ rarely makes an interesting headline.  You can research any charity on the Charity Commission website and you can also get an idea of what their overheads are from Charity Choice.  But you can’t just estimate the effectiveness of a charity’s work through how much goes ‘directly’ on the cause, look at what the charity deliver (a service charity will have a much larger staff salary, for example). Also, look at who is funding them; big funders have strict criteria before giving their money away.  

I am a fundraiser, and I’m proud to be a fundraiser.  I will defend my sector, and defend the professionals who work for a greater good.  These are my personal opinions, based on the bias I have developed through working for amazing causes, with fantastic people, doing terrific jobs. 

Further reading/references:

Liked this? Try these from this blog too…

Here’s a small selection of charities you may not have heard of:

Thursday, September 22, 2016

No queue at Kew

A few weeks ago, one typical British summer day (wet and warm), my friend and I spent the day at Kew Gardens. My last visit there was around 1969 or 1970. I remember going on a school trip from Queenswell School in Barnet, with our teacher Mr Smith asking for “22 tuppences please” from the Conductor.  Though we had to queue to get in back then, thanks to my friend booking in advance, we didn't have to in 2016.

The Hive
We enjoyed wandering round the garden and saw the Hive, an impressive art installation mimicking nature in design, and powered by the energy of the bees. The Great Palm House is exactly as I remember it, and the borders full of flowers beautiful and fragrant.  I remember very clearly bringing home a postcard of a Bottlebrush flower for my mother, and her delight as it was a flower she'd known as a child in South Africa.

I didn't see any flowering bottle brush this time, but I was particularly happy to see the ‘Heritage Trees’ – those mighty personalities that have stood witness to hundreds of years of history.  I enjoyed ‘meeting’ the Weeping Beech and Turner’s Oak.  Going into Palm house, I looked at a lot of the plants with an different eye, because thanks to the last two years of my job, I have a greater understanding of their importance as medicines.

Plants provide so much medicine for humanity – both in their natural state and as the basis for pharmacological medicines too.  I’ve learned a lot about how wild plants provide a natural pharmacopeia for millions of people who have no access to modern medicine, and how many rely on wild plant harvesting for their livelihoods as well. 

Here’s a few that I saw at Kew, with a little bit about some of their amazing properties:

The barrel cactus is used generally as a food and a medicine.
I first saw them this size in Arizona at the beautiful
Desert Botanic Garden.  (I learned a lot about cacti in Arizona!)

Magnolia - the bark and the centre of the flowers are used
extensively for cough and other medicines.
It's well used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

The beautiful, tall and elegant Corsican pine is
used to make turpentine – all resin from pine trees is
antiseptic (hence it’s a typical ‘flavour’ in household cleaners). 
It’s also used to treat kidney and bladder complaints
as well as being useful for skin treatments.

Ayurveda, the traditional Hindu system of medicine,
uses lots of exotic and unusual wild plants.
It also uses black pepper.  The heating properties
black pepper help digestion and is also a stimulant.
It tastes good too!

Beehive Ginger – what a descriptive name!
The major compound found in this unusual plant has
been found to be an effective cell growth
inhibitor in specific colon carcinoma cells.

The plane tree – one you will see commonly in
London as (by shedding its bark) it can survive the polluted air! 
Its leaves can be used for sore eyes or made into a
cream for healing wounds.  It’s also handy for
treating dysentery and diarrhoea.

All photos (C) Carolyn Sheppard