Acts of Remembrance: National Memorial Arboretum visit

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I spent the day at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire yesterday with the guys from Coalville’s Hero Project.

The site is a twenty-year-old, 150-acre ‘centre of remembrance’, much of it planted with nicely maturing trees which extend the wildlife corridor of the National Forest surrounding it.

There are lots and lots of memorials there, too, designed and paid for by the many groups who applied to have their comrades, workmates, friends and townsfolk commemorated forever on the site.  Including those who served in the Armed Forces.

Coalville Hero’s are currently working on a project – the Famous Fifty Exhibition – to honour the memory of the Coalville men who served in World War I.  The trip to the Arboretum was to find out more about their experiences and about post-conflict acts of remembrance in general.

I’ll be honest and admit I didn’t think I’d enjoy the place much.  I’d imagined it would be aggressively patriotic, applauding the sacrifice of dying for your country instead of highlighting the sadness of such needless loss.  That sadness was over-whelming at times, it’s true – there’s nothing like seeing rows and rows of trees and knowing that each represents one lost life (or, in the case of the wooden stakes of the Shot at Dawn memorial, one life that never reached its full potential).

But the whole thing was dealt with very tastefully and I came away with an understanding of the place as somewhere for the grieving to focus their grief, to share it with others who have experienced loss as they have, and to ease the pain a little. For many, it seems, parking the weight of it there lightens the burden they must carry elsewhere in their day-to-day lives.

There’s something life affirming about trees, too, isn’t there?  They’re a fantastic metaphor of the cyclical nature of life.  Leaves fall, but spring brings new growth.  Seeing the trees of the Arboretum in autumn, with their leaves turning to such beautiful colours, was very special.

I’m very grateful that Coalville Hero’s invited me to go along for the visit, and very honoured to be involved in their wonderful remembrance project.

Victory over Blindness

A sculpture representing the 2 million British servicemen who became permanently disabled during World War 1.

Poppy display

Visitors are encouraged to add poppies to this memorial.

Signpost to WW1 memorials

'Gas, boys, gas!'

A re-enactor demonstrates the 9 seconds a ‘Tommy’ would have had to put on his gas mask. The air breathed in was made ‘safe’ by passing through an asbestos filter in the bag.

Sleeping quarters in the trenches - if you were lucky!The Funk HoleA trench sign

Memorial to the Bevin Boys

A memorial to the Bevin Boys, who helped the war effort by mining coal back home in the UK.

Memorial to the Bevin Boys (2)Memorial to the Women's Land Army

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For & Against: the Art of the Pamphlet exhibition

It was fantastic to be invited to the opening of the ‘For and Against: Art, Politics and the Pamphlet’ exhibition staged by Loughborough University’s Radar Arts.

Thrilling, too, to see that so many of the exhibits grew out of my involvement with the project: creative pieces from the writing workshop I ran for adults, art work produced by local primary school children at workshops led by myself and artist Chiara Dellerba, and also the pamphlet that artwork was reproduced in, displayed alongside genuine political pamphlets from the project’s exhibition at Charnwood Museum.

It was good to see the pieces validated alongside the work of the other creative artists involved in the project.

 


On author platforms and how to set them up

I attended a couple of really useful professional development workshops given by Leicester Writers’ Club this spring.

The regular masterclasses the club stage for its members are one of the many fantastic things about being a Leicester Writer.  A core group of experienced, well-published authors, many of whom also lecture on creative writing courses at nearby universities, regularly share what they know with the rest of us for little more than the price of a packed lunch from Tesco’s.  The quality of knowledge and skills picked up over each day-long course are akin to sticking on a pair of seven league boots and taking a huge leap forward on your personal writer’s journey.  Priceless.

The professional development sessions focused on marketing ourselves as writers rather than on writing craft itself.  Over the two workshops, long-term members Emma Lee and Siobhan Logan got us to evaluate what we were already doing then led us through good practice in networking, blogging, using social media and reviewing other people’s work.  It was eye-opening stuff and I came away with a strengthened belief in myself as a ‘writer’ and a determination to sort out my shop window.  Which is useful, because it’s in something of a mess.

How to properly brand ‘Alison the Writer’ has puzzled me since first being advised to create a blog by our tutor on the Creative Writing Masters course.  Conflicting advice from a wide variety of sources (including online and in ‘how to’ books) and indecision over the best path to follow has prompted me, variously, to set up –

I’ve dabbled with a newsletter and have a fairly active Facebook presence, though mostly just for the benefit of friends.

To complicate matters further, I have a LinkedIn page – which a creative coach recently told me is the only platform I should be posting on – and I write for a local history website I co-developed in 2014 as part of a funded post.  The post was short-term, but I’m still passionate about collecting our town’s history and contribute articles to the site whenever I have time.

The advice I’ve read is to decide what kind of writer you are and then stick with that, avoiding confusing your audience with different facets of yourself.  The problem is that there are lots of facets to me, all with equal validity, and try as I might to choose one, I can’t. I write stories for children. I love history – fiction and nonfiction.  Memoir leaks from my fingertips, often at inconvenient moments, and though I’ve tried to ignore it, I’m a teacher at heart and want to share what I know about teaching with others.  All these aspects demand expression through writing and that writing needs a platform on which to reach the world.

But keeping up so many platforms – particularly whilst earning your living elsewhere – is time consuming and pretty much impossible.  I’m spread too thin and paranoid about damaging my professional credibility.  So I end up doing very little on any of them and never writing down the thoughts in my head.  My writer’s voice is silenced, in effect, which leaves me feeling more than a little unhinged. (Those chattering voices need syphoning somehow and, sadly, I don’t have the magical skills to use a pensieve).

At the end of the Leicester Writers workshops I emailed Emma Lee – a very experienced blogger – to ask what I should do about my blog, whose subscription was up for renewal and which I shared with the world anonymously.  She suggested I let go of the blogger account and merge the articles on it with those on my author website, giving them a brief edit to help them fit.  But weren’t the topics too ‘private’ for my ‘professional persona’ to share?  ‘There’s no ‘should’ or ‘should not’ when it comes to how much personal stuff gets included on a writer’s blog,’ she answered.  ‘Some writers use it as a starting point. Some writers avoid it.  It’s a personal decision as to how much information you want to give.’

It’s a tricky one, this idea of acknowledging my thoughts and feelings so publicly, of being brave and expressing my true, authentic voice under my own name.  Of standing up and stating so forcefully ‘take it or leave it but this is me!’

But very necessary to my development, both as a person and as a writer.  Indeed, the lack of willingness to do so might very possibly be the thing that’s stopped me finishing that one important book that only I can write.

It’s time, I think, to let the chattering voices say what they really want to say …

So that’s what I intend to do.  Over the next few months I’ll be re-working blogs I previously published on other platforms and bringing them all here.  Nailing my colours to the mast and putting my name to articles which have previously been anonymous.

It’s an important step for me as a writer and the only way I’m ever going to merge the different elements of myself into one, strong voice.


Crossing Creative Boundaries: the story of Ladybird and their illustrated picture books

On Monday I listened to a fascinating talk of interest to me as a writer, an educator and as a history geek.

Part of the Loogabarooga Children’s Illustrated Literature Festival, the talk was given by Roy Smith, a brilliant artist who worked his way from apprentice to Art and Production Director at Ladybird Books during the time it was based in Loughborough.  Roy illustrated his story with quick-draw sketches very evocative of the Ladybird style I knew as a child.

Roy's quick-draw illustration of his car in the Angel Works' car park beside the boss's Roll-er, explained in Tootle the Taxi-style verse.

Roy’s quick-draw illustration of his car in the Angel Works’ car park beside the boss’s Roll-er, explained in Tootle the Taxi-style verse.

Which brings me to fact number one: there’s a surprisingly huge interest from adults in vintage Ladybird titles.

I suspect this is because the books act as a reminder of happy, childhood times.  People came from all over the place for the talk and for the previous Friday’s vintage book swap, and many could name their favourite Ladybird book and when and with whom they used to read it.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one day in the future some adult or other looked back on reading my books with such fondness and nostalgia?

Fact number two: it’s now much easier to produce a picture book than it was even ten years ago.

My grandfather was a printer, and some of the processes discussed reminded me of my dad’s stories of watching Grandad Edgar at work.  Roy mentioned laboriously copying artwork by hand to transfer it to printing plates, hours spent setting out tiny metal letters with tweezers, the need for huge, individual rollers for applying each separate colour and how thousands of book sheets had to be printed off at a time and stored in the warehouse, ready to fulfil any sudden demand.

Now-a-days we have the ability to scan drawings, manipulate them on computer with a graphics package, change font with a click of the mouse and print out quickly on modern, efficient printers.  It’s possible to produce a book in a matter of hours and, with print on demand techniques, to run off as many – or as few – as are immediately needed.

How Ladybird books were laid out on the page so each could be produced from one sheet of paper.

How Ladybird books were laid out on the page so each could be produced from one sheet of paper.

Roy stated several times how difficult it was to make layout changes to books in his day.  This made me smile as I’ve just spent two weeks on the computer working on a picture book of my own.  Facebook posts document my frustrations with the unfamiliar graphics package I’m using.  I had thought myself very hard done by.  Listening to Roy, though, I’ve changed my mind.

Roy’s talk was the last event in the Loogabarooga programme and after the excitement of the festival, I’m back on the computer, tweaking illustrations and adapting pages so that text fits around them as it should.  I’m cutting it fine for having physical copies ready for the ‘window of opportunity’ I’m aiming at, but I’m hopeful to make e-book publication at least, and for the satisfaction of knowing that at long last, my story is out there.  It’s all a bit of a gamble, I know, but you never know what’s possible until you try.

A hundred years ago last year a little printing company called Wills & Hepworth took a bit of a gamble on putting out a children’s book.  It was a real privilege to hear Roy Smith tell the story of how well that gamble turned out.


Why support International Literacy Day?

Tuesday 8th September is International Literacy Day 2015 and I’m going to spend it thinking about how much I love books.

I’ve pretty much loved reading since the age of 6 when I first made it the whole way through a reading book.  It wasn’t a hard book and it had lots of pictures, but I still remember the sense of achievement I felt in not having given up.

I was lucky.  As the child of literate parents, I grew up in a house full of books and with someone to support me with my reading.  I was also lucky to have been born in a country which provides free education for its children.

According to the World Literacy Foundation’s 2015 report on the economic and social cost of illiteracy –

  • around 67 million primary-aged children and 72 million adolescents in the world have no access to education, and
  • more than 796 million people globally can’t read and write.

Illiteracy is linked to higher rates of unemployment, crime, poor health and poverty.  The ability to read and write is life-changing, yet too many young people never get the chance to learn.

We’re very lucky in the UK.  Education is a basic right here and we don’t often think about what it’s like to live without it – unless we happen to see otherwise for ourselves.

DSCN8604Visiting schools in Bangladesh and seeing the pride young learners took in their education was one of the best experiences of my life.  Seeing the crowds of children hanging around outside the schools and unable to pay to go in was one of the worst.

That’s why I’m chuffed that my writing for children course supports the cause of global literacy.  For every course sold, a donation is made to the World Literacy Foundation.

DSCN8525Why not find out about the World Literacy Foundation and how you can help them help the world receive a quality education?

Read about International Literacy Day and activities you can do to celebrate it.

Have a wonderful International Literacy Day celebrating the marvellousness of the written word.


The Story Stones of Holy Island

Yesterday we had a lovely Bank Holiday Sunday walk on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

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This, despite me worrying that we’d not allowed ourselves enough time and would be caught in the tide as we left.  The fires of anxiety were stoked by a story the guys told of a friend of a friend who’d ignored the ‘do not proceed when water reaches causeway’ signs and had to be rescued by the coastguard, ruining a new, very expensive car in the process.  I needn’t have worried – we’d left enough time to eat delicious ice cream and buy some excellent locally-produced honey before joining the convoy of cars heading for the mainland.

We last visited Holy Island some seven or eight years ago when our children were still children, and we shared memories of that visit as we walked with our friends.  We talked of the history we knew of the place, too, and of other people we know who’ve been there.  Lindisfarne, it seemed to me, is awash with stories.

IMG_0401I was intrigued by some odd looking structures on the edge of the beach beyond the castle.  These turned out to be towers of stones, placed there, it seems, by visitors.  I’ve no idea what the structures are meant to mean, but I decided to add a stone or five to one of them. One of those stones looked remarkably like a cheerful face and I considered, momentarily, taking it home.  It was heavy and impractical to carry, though, so I put it on the tower.

The smiling stoneThen I selected a small, beautifully smooth red stone instead.  I’ve decided that it’s a ‘story stone’, as it holds the story of the world up to the moment I found it.

And for as long as it’s mine, it’ll also hold the story of the day we ambled in the Bank Holiday sunshine on Holy Island.

Click here for a Story Stones Writing Activity.


Life through writing – writing through life

Graduation - with an MA in Creative WritingBasically, I really, really love writing.  I used to write for fun all the time as a child (my first full-length work – ‘Adventures of the Dolls’ House’ – handwritten in an exercise book at the age of ten and complete with illustrations, back-cover blurb and reviews from friends – is currently on tour in my attic).

Sadly, the possibility of a working as a writer was never mentioned at school and over the years, this thing I thought of as a hobby was squeezed out by the need to earn a living, run a home and raise a family.

Thankfully, word-crafting and storytelling clung stubbornly on, leaking into letters to friends and family as well as resources I made for my teaching job.

Eventually I realised I couldn’t ignore the stories knocking for attention on the inside of my skull. They’re part of who I am, of what makes me me, and the need to share them and have them validated by others became unbearable.  Luckily, at around this time I found a good, part-time creative writing course and it changed my life.

I’ve felt happier and more complete since I began writing regularly again.  And when I’ve worked on something and shaped it into a piece people connect with and respond to, there really isn’t a feeling like it.  Life makes so much more sense when I can put my experiences into words, and learning the skills needed to do that effectively has given me a new career as a writer.

I’m a very lucky woman indeed.