Friday, December 28, 2012

Meet the Spy Lady! Carol Hedges, author, campaigner and lay barrister!

Welcome to another of my weberviews. This time, it's with Carol Hedges, author of a series of Young Adult books about Jazmin, the Spy Girl. Her books have received great reviews and been described as 'really thrilling page-turners'. She also has a great award winning blog.

Val: Carol, we’ve been bloggees and twitter pals for a couple of months now. I have really enjoyed your blog and am intrigued by your adventures in law and disorder, but I still don’t really know what motivated you to write your YA books on the theme of a young teenage detective girl. Can you tell me something more about it? 

First of all, when did you start writing? Have you been doing it all your life? Or is this something that started when you wrote your first Spy Girl novel?

Carol: I've always written stuff - I was an early reader, and I think becoming a writer is a natural progression. I first got published when I was 40, I'd never 'dared' send anything off before, but I got that'40' thing, and decided to go for it.

Val. Funny, that, so did I! But I didn’t get published! Anyhow, what prompted you to write a series of YA novels and where did you get the material for the stories?

Carol: I teach teenagers, and I brought up one, so I think writing YA is a natural area - it's what I know about best, as I work with them every day.

Val: And love them too, I’m guessing! I know that you used to teach in schools, and you now teach on a private basis. Do you still do this because you love teaching?

Carol: I trained to be a childrens' librarian - the teaching came later. I was 46 when I decided to retrain, as going back to being a librarian after taking time off to bring up my daughter was a no-no – late evenings and Saturdays didn't interface with bringing up a child. I was the oldest Postgrad on the block - the only advantage I had over the youngsters was that none of my hapless pupils suspected I was a trainee - they all thought I was a 'proper' teacher!

Val: You seem to have an amazing amount of energy. You’ve conducted your own lawsuit in defense of your community, you write, you teach and maintain your social media efforts very consistently, plus you have an award winning blog! How do you manage to do so much and still work? Do you follow a strict schedule?

Carol: I am the most unstructured person out - I waste time on Twitter and FB, I can potter for England! However, if I have a deadline, or a commitment (the blog goes out every Sat) then I will pull myself together and work. I view those writers who regularly get up at 5 am to put in a couple of hours writing with AWE!!

Val: Even so, Carol you’ve still produced four books – that’s pretty awesome! But about your heroine, is Jasmine Dawson a reflection of you in any way? Do you speak with your own voice when you write about her?

Carol: Jazmin, like all my heroines, is a reflection of my own daughter - and her relationship with her mother reflects ours.

Val: No wonder they are so vivid! I see that your Spygirl novels are published by Usborne Publishing. Were you lucky enough to find a publisher straight away?

Carol: I was lucky to find a publisher quite quickly - OUP took my first serious novel and then the next two. BUT I didn't get an agent straightaway. I had to wait until OUP and I were experiencing problems. I'd advise anyone to get an agent first, before tackling publishers. In my experience, they don't treat you as seriously if you are freelance.

Val:That’s really interesting and something I’ve not thought of at all. Good advice, Carol, thanks!  But, are you writing any more Spygirl books, or do you have other projects in mind?

Carol: At the moment, I'm redrafting a Victorian Crime novel, probably for adults. I may well go down the Indie route with it and publish as an ebook. I'd prefer to find a mainstream publisher, as it takes a level of responsibility off my shoulders, but in these tough recessionary times, I think most writers have to be prepared to 'do it for ourselves'.

Val: Yes, and in some respects I think it’s more rewarding too. Carol, what do you do in your free time – if you have any? Do you have any other hobbies?

Carol: I love to read - if I get any free time. Or I listen to plays on Radio4 and Radio 3 (I grew up in the 50's and 60's in a home without TV, so I am a radio girl). And then there are friends to visit and catch up with.

Val: Maybe radio is something that goes with writers too! Lastly, Carol, what’s in store for 2013? Do you have any plans you can share with us?

Carol: My dreams for 2013? I'd love to get 'Village Green' status on our playing field and stop the local council from developing it. I'd love my Victorian novel to find a publisher. And -the BIG DREAM@ I'd love Usborne to commission a 5th Spy Girl book!

What many of my readers don't know is that Carol has been campaigning vigorously for a playing field near her home to be classified as a village green. She has challenged the council in her home town and acted as a lay barrister, taking on the expertise of a fully trained barrister in the courts - and coming out with enormous amounts of credit. I’m wishing and holding fingers, thumbs and toes crossed that all her  dreams come true this year.

 It’s been great having you over to my barge blog, Carol and I’d really love it if we could meet in real life too. Stay well, and keep on fighting and writing!

Contact points;
Twitter @carolJhedges

Monday, December 24, 2012


 Just thought I'd share these images of my little tree with the decorations that Mo and I made a few years ago, including our toilet roll christmas angel :-) The other balls and baubles break, but our little gift-wrapped boxes just keep on going - a bit like us! Have a wonderful holiday everyone and a great entrance into 2013 xxx

Friday, December 21, 2012

Winter out of the Water

The Oude Haven from The Helling

I was looking at the barge on the slipway at the Oude Haven today - a big, bulky tjalk that belongs to one of our friends, Daan. He's working on the bottom this week, and the weather is not being kind to him. Luckily, he doesn't live on board this one. It's an ongoing restoration project that's a kind of hobby. He and his wife live on another, very beautiful tjalk a few kilometres east of Rotterdam along the river.

Koos, doing Koos impressions while assisting Philip

Watching him work put me in mind of one winter when I had the Vereeniging  on the slipway, or 'on the slips' as they call it in England. Here in the Netherlands, we call it the helling. The way it works is if you are prepared to do your bottom cleaning stint in the winter months, you get quite a nice discount, so given the expense of this enterprise, it's quite an attractive proposition financially. The discount is on account of the days being shorter, colder and generally a lot more uncomfortable than they are in the summer, which of course makes it much less attractive physically. They aren't kidding!

The year in question was, I think, 2006. I seem to remember it was in February. It snowed a lot, that I do know, and Philip, the main personality in my Watery Ways book, was helping me with some welding below the water line. As a matter of fact, about the only place where we could work unimpeded was the bottom since being under the barge, we were protected from the elements, but yes - as you've already gathered - it was very cold. Philip and I communicated in a series of grunts and sign language - he from behind his welding mask and ear plugs, and me from the cocoon of scarves and hoods I wrapped myself in. We must have looked very strange, waddling around like dressed-up telly tubbies, and poking at the bottom of the barge with various implements of a fiery and tarry nature.

On the Helling, on the Vereeniging

Philip working on the rudder
One of the odd things about having your barge out of the water is the sheer difference in feeling and sensation that you have when it is suddenly stable, stuck as it is on its perch high above the ground. Even though you aren't conscious of it most of the time, a floating vessel is always moving, always giving with every step, always rocking slightly and moving with you. The movements are imperceptible, but it's rather like living on a giant water bed. So to have your barge on terra firma is the weirdest feeling, and not really very pleasant. The floor feels too hard. The barge is at a strange angle - straight, instead of sloping gently down as it normally does. In fact, you think you are walking uphill all the time. Added to that, every step you take feels as if your shins are being knocked into your knees. Moving about inside the barge suddenly takes on an uncomfortable resemblance to high impact sport.

What's still worse is that the hull is suddenly exposed to the elements on every side. Normally, it wallows happily in a bath of water which insulates it from extremes. In the winter, the water temperature is rarely as cold as the air temperature while in the summer, the reverse is true. Out of the water, then, with its nice protective bath gone, it is much, much colder in bad winter weather. The iron hull freezes and everything creaks and warps as the metal contracts. Or does it also expand? I know I contract in the cold, but then maybe that's me just shrivelling up! In any event, the cold gets into the fabric of the boat and changes it quite dramatically. Cupboard doors won't shut, floorboards warp, everything is out of kilter.

I guess you could say the barge itself feels like a fish out of water...

Oh and then there's the wind! This too, wraps itself around the entire hull and draughts seem to issue from gaps and cracks you never knew it had. The nights I was on the helling that winter, I slept in double layers of everything, socks and nickers included.

View of the Vereeniging in a snow shower

These memories often come back to me when I watch the other barges on the helling. The oddest thing of all about it is that the recollections I have are fond ones. Never did I wish I wasn't there. Never did I feel I should have chosen another life. Sometimes, yes, sometimes I wondered what on earth I was doing, but even then, I wouldn't have changed it. Sometimes, like now, I wonder why I have.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Bridging the years

These past few days have really got my early Vereeniging memories going. The cold spell here has had me gasping on my bike as I've pedalled across the Van Brienenoord bridge to work every day.  Yesterday, I'll swear my toes dropped off on route. I was truly amazed to find they were still attached to my feet when I arrived at the uni. Most days, I take a breather as I reach the flat part at the top of the bridge where it crosses the open water. I like to stretch my eyes over to the east and watch the light come up over the horizon and spread a pearly wash over the water. Sometimes, it's so captivating, I just want to stand there and wait till it reaches me, but work always calls so I hoist myself up on my old bone shaker and pedal on.

The something around eight kilometres to work gives me plenty of time to think. I'm not one that likes ear plugs and music as I go. I prefer to listen to the natural sounds. Okay, I live in Rotterdam, so natural has a slightly different slant on it - cars honking, brakes squealing, trucks revving to get up the rise onto the bridge. Perhaps I should rather say real sound as opposed to digital. It isn't natural at all! Now and then, though, I can hear the birds. Just occasionally.

This time to think has recently been much taken up with my first year on the Vereeniging and I believe the cold has had something to do with this resurgence of memories. Maybe it is also because it was ten years ago this year that I spent my first winter on board. I don't have many photos of those days, which is a shame, but it was before digital photography really took off, and I didn't have a camera. I can picture it in my mind, though. I have a thousand mental images of what it was like that first year.

The Vereeniging evolved. it wasn't really planned. It was an empty shell when I bought the barge, so it just grew with me. All I knew when first had it was that I wanted a proper bathroom, but it wasn't until mid 2003 that I finally got one, and in the end, I had to build it and do all the plumbing myself. That's another story though. Over the first winter, I did what I'd been doing on the Hoop (the barge I lived on for the first 18 months of my stay in NL). I used the showers in the ship yard, and I had a Porta Potti camping toilet for the necessaries. It was okay. I managed, but going up to the showers when it was freezing outside and the water was low was always an exercise in resolve. I had to climb a very icy and slippery wooden ganglank, then walk around 100 metres to the shipyard office where the showers are still. The temptation to give it a miss, just do it tomorrow, was frequently irresistible. I did, however, manage to rig myself up a sink on board even though there was no plumbing, so if it came to it, a strip wash was always possible.

I was a bit proud of my sink. Koos had donated it to me, and in fact, it is still in use on the Vereeniging although it is all fully plumbed-in these days with a cupboard beneath it and shelves for pots. When I first got it, it stood forlornly in the hold with nowhere to go. It was mounted in a homemade table unit, which consisted of a top and two sides. But it had no tap. I found a very handy electric tap-cum pump at the camping shop, which I mounted on the top next to the sink. Underneath, the pump was immersed in a large 20 litre cannister of water and it had an electric plug for the mains. The whole unit found a home against one side of the barge and I made a brightly coloured curtain to cover the front and disguise the cannister. I have to say it worked like a charm. When I turned the handle on the tap it switched the pump on and hey presto! Out came the water. I just loved it. Eventually, when I got my plumbing system in place and dispensed with my little electric tap, I missed it. I tried to find other uses for it and couldn't, which saddened me. It was just so neat.

That first winter, it was cold. Very cold. I had quite a number of strip washes. The Vereeniging was pretty basic, primitive even if you consider what normal living consists of, but I was happier than I had been for years. The Vereeniging represented my independence, my freedom. I remember this when I stop on the bridge and gaze at the ships passing beneath me.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Winter on the water

The Vereeniging in the snow
It has turned very cold in the last few days. Last night, we had our first snow showers, and more is forecast for tomorrow. These days, my barge is fitted with an oil stove which delivers heat of tropical proportions, but every winter I am reminded of the first December I spent on board on the Vereeniging - ten years ago this year.

It was exceptionally cold exceptionally early. As I recall, it was already freezing in November, and come the first few days of December, we had not only snow, but ice too - inside the barge as well as out. The reason for this was that I had not finished insulating and there were large sections of the hull which were still bare iron. What was worse was that I had no bathing facilities, no hot water and all I had for heat was a rather feeble electric radiator. It was in the early days of my conversion to the higher state of normal living.

The cold hit me hard, that I do remember. I had still not acclimatised to European weather and winters and my South African blood longed for sun with some warmth to it, not the frigid glare of the European variety. The days were beautiful that winter - the sky a vivid blue and the sun fluorescent in its white, bright light, but the rays felt tinged with ice and I wanted to die.

I remember one particular day. The east wind was blowing the water out of the estuary and keeping it out. It was low tide and the water in the harbour was so shallow, we were sitting on mud flats. My loopplank was like the north face of the Eiger. Getting off the barge was akin to rock climbing while getting on it meant performing a sitting shuffle as I slithered down the perilously icy planks of my wooden gangway. And I was cold through to my bones. I remember the feel of it now, oh my goodness, it's still so vivid a memory! It just became too much that day and I remember hugging the radiator for just some kind of warmth. And I cried. Yes, I did. Me, a forty something, supposedly mature, strong woman who'd held positions of responsibility in Johannesburg's corporate and, lets' face it, rather more dangerous world. There I sat in tears because I was just so cold. I hadn't turned a hair at having to strip myself of all valuables before going into the South Africa's most lawless city, or at signs saying "Gun free zone. Please leave your firearms at the security desk" when I went visiting clients. But faced with below zero temperatures, I found myself as pathetic as a snivelling ten year old, and with no spunk whatsoever.

Luckily for me, help arrived to save my shredded dignity. Koos came. He took one look at me, hauled me up the loopplank and carted me off to find a more effective form of heating. At that time, the best thing we could find at short notice was one of those Zebro Kamin paraffin stoves - great because the heat is instant, very economical and extremely safe with their automatic cut off switches. They are not ideal for old iron boats though as the condensation they create is potentially very damaging, but for now - I mean for that time (see how close it is to me still!), it was the best answer to a very immediate need.

The Vereeniging in warmer weather
I still have that heater today. It's hardly ever used, but is always there as backup in case we run out of diesel or it gets so cold that even the normal stove is not enough. Last winter, the harbour froze over and I woke every morning to the sound of ice scraping against the sides of the barge. This winter, it may be even colder. Who knows? I am not there so much these days, but Jodie is learning to cope with it now. Luckily, she will never have to endure a winter like my first. The barge is well insulated, there is a bathroom, the water supply is good and the heater works like a charm. Even so, I am waiting to see what she makes of it. Time will tell.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Noisy neighbours....

Since my daughter has been living on my barge and we have an interim, lock up and leave flat, we are down south more often than not at weekends. Reason? I still feel the need to get away from the noise in my neighbourhood. 

But now, instead of drunken students throwing bikes and tables into the harbour, it's the old duck upstairs who is so obsessive about cleaning that she's bashing around with her broom and hoover in hob nailed boots every morning from about 5:30. Even worse, after she's done hoovering, she goes and starts cleaning her balcony in the same hob nailed boots but this time with a yard brush for extra amplificiation. 

Her final pièce de résistance is hanging her washing on the railings while making sure to beat a tattoo on the steel, the result of which sends Sindy into paroxysms of fear and teeth rattling for the rest of the day....okay slight exaggeration, but only slight, I promise! Maybe the boots aren't actually hob-nailed....But I have to say it's hardly an edifying sight to watch her 'nighty and nickers' waving around over my geraniums for all the hours of sunshine that we are lucky enough to scrape in this part of the world.

A few nights ago, though, I lay in bed totally stymied. I woke to hear this sort of whining noise. Puzzled, I couldn't place it for a moment, so I looked at my watch to see if was the street sweepers. My reliable timepiece told me it was 3:30 a.m. Surely not! I listened again and heard tapping noises and then a scraping that sounded like a stick being dragged along the skirting boards. And then I 'twigged' it. My industrious, compulsive obsessive cleaning neighbour was hoovering (yes hoovering!) her flat at this ungodly hour of the morning! Convinced I was wrong about the time, I got up to look at the kitchen clock. Still 3:30 - well, 3:40 by then. I looked at the ceiling in disbelief. The whining and scraping whined and scraped on. I suppose I should have been thankful she'd conceded to the hour enough to forego the hob nailed boots, but even so... 

I started thinking all sorts of uncharitable thoughts about yanking her nighty off the line next time I saw it waving over my balcony, or worse, playing my violin under her bedroom window. What a riveting thought. I'm still at the blood curdling, cat strangling stage in my musical development, so I had visions about serenading her at midnight, just to get my own back.

In the end, though, the whining stopped, the skirting boards were left in peace and the next morning, she sweetly offered us a replacement for the flickering TL tube on our landing, so what does that tell me? Is it my neighbours and those in my neighbourhood that are noisy and compulsive obsessive about everything they do.........or is it simply that I'm just a misanthropist - intolerant, hyper sensitive and unsociable? I'm in denial of course, but it's food for thought, isn't it?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Got it!!!

My author's copies of Watery Ways have finally arrived! I think they look, feel and smell great, so it's a real thrill to have them. Now for the work. I will need to start spreading myself around - so to speak - well, at least my book!

First call will be to the Maritime Museum bookshop to ask them if they would like to do a little book launch for me on their premises. After that, I will be sending copies to the local TV station, the local paper and the local radio stations. My market is limited here, so wish me luck!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Tired of fear mongers

I'm about to have a mini rant, so be warned. This is my blog, so I think I am entitled to rant (in a mini kind of way) here. After all, if I can't do it here, where else can I let off a puff of steam?

My rant is about the politics of fear. I'm tired of it, I really am. Ever since my childhood, the powers that be have managed to find something to hang over us like the proverbial sword of damocles. When I was between six and ten years old, or thereabouts, I remember the cloud of the whole ban the bomb movement, the cold war, the Christine Keeler affair and the Cuban crisis. Following that came the years of Vietnam and more cold war tension. Then the middle east came in with the oil crisis, followed quickly by scares involving acid rain, holes in the ozone layer and the like. After that there were numerous plagues of this and that: salmonella poisoning and mad cow disease to name but a couple. Of course every few years, there's a new scary virus - we've had swine flu, bird flu, mexican flu (although I think that was swine flu wasn't it?).  Added to that there are the tales of chem trails and spraying, toxic waste and radiation, the threat of nuclear disaster always present. If that were not enough, we've had international terrorism, 9/11, 7/7 and the consequent erosion of our freedoms. Then for the last so many years, we've had climate change with various and increasing predictions of catastrophe and disaster for all mankind.

I'm not suggesting that these threats don't exist; I'm just saying - well what? I'm saying I'm tired of the fact that my whole life has been lived with one or other cloud of fear hanging over it.

I grew up in a family where the philosophy was 'waste not want not', 'don't litter', 'if wishes were horses then beggars would ride' so don't expect too much. My parents believed that the quality of life was determined more by what you created rather than what you consumed. We painted, drew, wrote and made stuff. We didn't have a TV, we only got our first watches when we turned eleven and holidays were spent camping in Wales with no mod cons, real camp fires and boxes of paints and hardboard 'canvases' that our dad made for us. We played and made music on cheap guitars, old pianos and bargain violins - we still do. And we were quite content with what we had - and we still are.

But that cloud of fear was there then and it still is.

It often seems to me that consumerism has gone mad these days, and that maybe, just maybe, these threatening clouds are used to remind us of what we should be focusing on. I don't know. I really don't, but as I said, I'm tired of it now. I would dearly like to live the rest of my life in peace and tranquillity without worrying that the end of the world is not just nigh, it might even be, for heaven's sake, next week! I've been feeling like that ever since I was conscious of more than just my toys. Don't I, don't we, deserve a bit of peace now?

Okay, rant over, and I promise I'll be good and cheerful next time....yes I will...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Night Train parts 1 & 2 combined now under my stories tab

A few years ago, I went to a concert in Germany. I went with a friend, Paula, and my daughter, Jodie, and it was great, but the point of this story is not the concert itself: it was the return journey. 

It proved to be one of those experiences I will never forget, and I've written a kind of short story account of the journey, which is now under my short stories tab. It was here for a few days, but now I want to write another post and so I thought I should move it to a more appropriate spot. Even so, I'd really like to hear about some of your experiences with travelling at night, so....

Have you ever had a spooky night train ride? I'd love to hear about yours too!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Children's history, picture books and short stories - meet Rosalind Adam

Like Jo Carroll, who I weberviewed a few posts back, Rosalind Adam is a recent blogging friend who I tweeted into by chance on Twitter. After visiting her blog a few times, I became interested and curious to know a little more about Rosalind and her interest in history and short story writing, so Rosalind has kindly agreed to answer some questions for my blog weberview too.

Rosalind, after 'meeting' you on Twitter, I've been going through your blog pages and was really interested to see the variety of work that you do. I loved the short story you've published there and also the page about Leicester and its historical surroundings. So, I'm really chuffed you've agreed to come to my blog for a chat. I've prepared some questions for you, so here goes:

Q.1. I see you used to teach but are now a writer and workshop leader. What led you to give up teaching as a career and make this fairly radical lifestyle change?

RA. It was the stress of teaching, not the children. They were lovely. It was the paperwork, the Ofsted inspections, the National Curriculum demands that knocked all our imaginative lesson plans into the waste paper bin.

Q.2 Yes, I've heard that can be a terrible burden. I can't blame you for giving that up. Anyhow, I see you have written a number of short stories for women's magazines. How difficult is it to get stories published and how do you know what kind of story is likely to be accepted?

RA. I spent several years writing magazine stories. I used to buy all the magazines who accepted unsolicited manuscripts and read their stories carefully. They don't want the regular boy meets girl story. They want something quirky but clean, original but satisfying, the sort of thing you can read over a morning cup of coffee. They're not as easy as they look to write.

Q.3 I can imagine. I think the Short Story is a very difficult genre, so hats off to you!. May I ask if you now make a living as a writer, or do you need to do both the workshops and the writing to complement each other?

RA. I have recently become eligible for my teacher's pension and Mr A commented that it was the most money I'd brought into the house in years... enough said?

Q.4 Oh goodness, I know the feeling! Still, I saw that you have written a number of children's books (including the Children's History of Leicester), you are a Historian, and you have written fiction for both children and adults, so what is your favourite genre for writing and why?

RA. I love writing children's picture books. Trust me to choose one of the most difficult genres to get into! These colourful books cost so much to produce that publishers have to think very hard before accepting a submission. As for why, it's because I can see the pictures in my head and you can have such fun with the genre.

Q.5 I love children's stories too. You can get very absorbed in them. Talking of being absorbed, though, I see you are very involved in local history, and that you have a history degree. Have you ever thought of writing a historical novel or series of novels?

RA. I've thought about it. I've even made notes and plans but nothing more... yet.

Q.6. Maybe this will act as a spur then! Talking of history, may I ask what your interest in Jewish history was prompted by?

RA. I have been a member of the Leicester Jewish Community all my life. My book, Jewish Voices, documents the recent history of the community during the Second World War and beyond. It was created from a series of memory writing workshops and I found it a fascinating project and the most rewarding book I've ever written.

Q.7 It sounds fascinating. I'll have to try and get a copy. I see you also work as a creative writing tutor and a writing workshop leader. Have you had to do any training yourself for this, or is it something you found you had a natural talent for?

RA. I used to teach 'Beginning to Write Creatively' classes and those were really good fun. Watching new writers producing that magic of a previously unknown idea appearing on the page is priceless. I no longer teach formal groups but I still lead the occasional creative or therapeutic writing workshop. 

Q.8. Rosalind, the short story you've published on your blog pages is very compelling. Do you have any kind of method that you follow when writing short stories?

RA. I love writing 'twist in the tale' stories. You lead the reader along, making them guess at one ending and then you produce an ending that they weren't expecting.

Q.9 You certainly surprised me with that one! Okay just a couple more questions. You mentioned to me that you have had some experience of canal boats. As you know, I have my own barge in Rotterdam, so this is a subject of great interest to me. Can you tell me a bit about your own watery experiences?

RA. For several years our summer holidays were taken on a canal boat in the UK. I love being on the water. Everything slows down. Standing up front with a mug of tea and waving to other boaters as they pass is my idea of the perfect holiday.

Q.10. It's just the best, isn't it? Lastly, Rosalind, do you have any books, articles or short stories in progress now? If so, would you be able to share what they are with us and when they are likely to be published?

RA. At the moment I'm working on several children's picture books. They may be short but they take quite a while to pull together in a satisfying way.

Val, thank you for inviting me along to your blog and for asking me such interesting questions.

My very great pleasure, Rosalind. Let me know when your picture books are being published. I have several small nieces and nephews who would be candidates for those!

Friday, November 09, 2012

Thank you Sunpenny!

Sunpenny publishing have very kindly published an interview with me on their own blog page. It tells readers a little about what it's like to live on a barge. If you're interested, you kind find it here Thanks a million, Sunpenny! I enjoyed the interview and it's great to be your guest.

As someone who is naturally curious about other people and especially other writers, I've been asking a few questions myself. This weekend, I'm going to be posting another weberview with another writer - this time one who writes Children's books and short stories - two of my other favourite genres. My questions to Rosalind Adam produced some interesting answers, so I hope my friends in blogland will enjoy them too. Watch this space :)

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Something to prove there's something in the water

Early morning cycling over the Van Brienenoordbrug
and Rotterdam's Nieuwe Maas River
For a few years now, I've been using homeopathic remedies for minor ailments and the usual round of cough colds and flu that beset most of us during the colder months of the year. I've long believed that pumping people full of antibiotics and fabricated drugs could not possibly be good for us although I think we can all be grateful they are there for the more serious illnesses. It doesn't escape me that diseases like bubonic plague that wiped out huge sections of the population at one time just don't happen today. Firstly, hygiene is much better and secondly a course of antibiotics would cure it anyway - simply and effectively. We are very lucky to have them for the more serious illnesses.

Nevertheless, I much prefer to treat 'conditions' as opposed to illnesses homeopathically. The idea that problems like sinus congestion and eczema can be treated more effectively by looking at the whole person and their personal tendencies rather than as individual symptoms just makes sense to me. That being said, I admit I have resorted to conventional medicine when I haven't had time to investigate my problems by following the homeopathic route.

Just recently, though, I've read a book that has reinforced my thinking about the importance of homeopathy. The book was written by a school friend of mine, Sue Lanzon. I haven't seen her since we were about sixteen or seventeen, but I do remember her very well. Sue was one of those serene souls who exuded tranquillity. I don't know if she was really - serene and tranquil that is - but that's what she conveyed - that along with wit, intelligence, great creativity and grace. So, it wasn't really a great surprise to learn that she'd become a homeopath when we bumped into each other on Facebook; nor was it a surprise to learn that before she became a homeopath, she'd been a professional photographer following an art school education. It all fitted with my memories of the school Sue.

However, I've also learnt that Sue is committed to her profession with more than usual dedication. Homeopathy is under fire in the UK. Homeopaths are frequently presented as quacks and their treatment is often dismissed as a useless con. It's claimed that it only works if you believe it will and that largely speaking, the remedies act merely as a placebo. I don't know how the critics manage to justify this when it comes to animals, but there you are. They do.

In any event, Sue's response to the critics was to write a collection of short stories about her life as a homeopath. As I understand it, the stories are fictional but built around events that are true. During each of these stories, she explains a homeopathic principle and treatment by first describing a fictional scenario which leads into the explanation of the homeopathic persona represented in the story and the reason for the 'like cures like' treatment.

I have just finished the book and loved it so much I have ordered three more copies to give as Christmas presents this year. It is just so beautifully written. The stories are intimate, moving, sincere and compelling. The writing is stunning in its clarity and poise. One story in particular, Dirty Bargains, literally moved me to tears. I caught myself, more than once, wishing that I had written this paragraph, that phrase, this sentence. Truly lovely. In fact, if I could, I would make everyone I know read it.

Added to the sheer beauty of the stories, the homeopathic insights have been a real eye opener for me as regards a member of my family. I was so excited when I read the story that gives the book its name, I actually got up and danced. This book has explained a problem that has been puzzling us for years. My relative is a 'sepia' patient. Not only that, someone recognised it years ago and called her a 'cuttlefish', but we didn't see or make the connection then. She went to visit a homeopath and the remedy is already showing signs of very positive results. It feels like something of a miracle.

Water is part of my life, so for me
Something in the Water is aptly named

 Looking east from the bridge. How often I wish
I could be on those boats going too

The book is called Something in the Water. It is published by Winter Press and it can be found here if you are interested. I hope you are. It's more than worth it, and is definitely one to keep. I'm keeping mine, that's for sure!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Slipping up over Second Languages

I know some of my friends here are bi-lingual and others are even tri-lingual, so maybe you'll know what I'm talking about.

Do you find that you no longer speak either or any of your languages perfectly anymore? Do you find yourself puzzling over whether you're mixing your words and phrases up with one of the others, or, like me, you can only think of words in the second language when you're trying to come up with one in the first?

Another problem is just simply using the wrong words for things, which I personally seem to be doing a lot these days.

I mean take the word 'ship' for example. There's a distinct difference in English between a ship and a boat. For one thing, it's a matter of, simply, size. In English, a ship conjures up images of cruise liners, vast sea-going vessels and tankers. A ship is big. I don't know at what point a boat becomes a ship, but I do know my barge is not one. Why is it then, that I cannot remember to call my barge a barge, or even a boat and not a ship? I do know, of course. It's because in Dutch even a cabin cruiser can be referred to as a schip and I've just got into the habit of using it without even thinking.

I was talking to an English colleague the other day when I happened to mention putting my ship on the slipway. Her eyes widened just ever so slightly (as I said, she's English, and therefore, very polite). I noticed it though and thought back to what I'd just said. Oops. So laughing, I told her my problem.

But it's not just Dutch that gets in the way. Most of you know that I lived in South Africa for twenty years, and my first language became seriously tainted with a mixture of old military terms, two hundred year old Dutch and Zulu. Yes, I hear you think. What a mess! There we said things like "I'm going on leave" instead of "on holiday" or people were "retrenched" rather than made redundant from their jobs. Then we'd leave a restaurant and say. "Well that was lekker, but I'll need some muti for the indigestion, boykie, so let's pay and rij" (pronounced 'ray'). A fair translation would be  "That was delicious. I'll need to take some medicine for the indigestion, guys, so let's pay the bill and go," Or it would be "Man, these plakkies hurt," (my flip flops hurt) or "Why doesn't he just voetsak!" (Why doesn't just b****r off). Even my family were totally mystified.

These days, though, I talk freely of being stuck in a file (a traffic jam), going on the helling (the slipway), turning up the kachel (heater) and so on. The problem is, the more I do it, the more difficult it is to remember the English words when I want them. The even greater problem is that I don't speak Dutch all that well, either, so in the end, I'm not sure that this second language thing is doing me much good. I shall finish up stumbling cheerfully through a motley selections of words and sentences just to make myself understood in the simplest of situations. They call it adaptation. Maybe it is, but I don't know what it does for my communication?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Marketing mania

This week has been exciting for me with the launch of the new edition of Watery Ways (Boathooks Books by Sunpenny Publishing). I am very pleased with the new version, especially as it has Koos's photos in it to add to the interest. It has also been professionally edited and with its new cover, it feels as if it has finally come to maturity.

That being said, there is a side to publishing that I'm finding quite difficult to deal with, and that is the marketing. I come from a marketing background and spent several years as the marketing manager for a medical insurance company in South Africa. It's a world I know about and understand, and when it's for somebody else, it's a world I enjoy, but it's not really what I want to do now.

My problem is that I'm now a full-time teacher by day and a writer by whatever time I can scratch that's left. And that's not much. I always have huge amounts of marking to do (I teach academic writing, so that does not involve multiple choice testing...oh no!), and equally huge amounts of preparation for new courses (I'm freelance, so hardly ever do the same course twice). However, now I've managed - thanks to Sunpenny Publishing - to get published, the time that's left is being severely curtailed by the extent to which I have to try and promote the said published books. In itself, I don't mind doing it and as an exercise, I find it quite a challenge, but it's not really what I want to be doing with whatever time I can scratch etc. I want to be writing new stuff. I have a work in progress on the go, a series of children's stories to finish, plus a whole heap of short stories I want to write not to mention the sequel to Watery Ways. But when am I going to find the time to write them if I have to spend half the whatever time I can scratch tweeting myself silly?

It's a toss up in the end, isn't it? If I don't invest the time Tweeting, Facebooking and Blogging, I'll never sell enough books to have the independence to spend the time I want on writing. On the other hand, if I keep writing without doing all the marketing, I'll probably be a lot happier, but with no prospect of independence, so what's it to be?

What I do like on Twitter in particular is the contact with other writers. Through Twitter, I've made contact with Jo Carroll (see previous post), Carol Hedges (future post to be), Michelle Wheatley and Rosalind Adam (also bookmarked for future posts). This has been great as I'd been feeling a bit despondent about the demise of the blogging community and now I have some new contacts with the same interest and passion - writing.

What I like on Facebook is the contact with my dispersed family as well as old friends from former blogging circles and from my former lives (if that's what I can call the different phases of my life). I appreciate all the support and encouragement they give me immensely. But I lack the drive and compulsion to be a real social media success, so this will always be a bit of a struggle.

In the end, I suppose I shall have to try and find the balance between the writing and the marketing. I haven't found it yet, but I do know that above all, I have to keep on writing. That is what I do, what I want to do and what keeps me going. Without the creative output, none of the rest of it makes any sense at all. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way, though, and wonder how many other writers have the same dilemma....

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Jo Carroll - in the spotlight

After reading Hidden tiger, I really felt I wanted to know more about Jo Carroll and her intrepid wanderings. I'd already asked if she would join me here for a web interview and I was so glad when she said yes. I had a lot of questions to ask!  I was intrigued by what prompted and inspired her to go travelling on her own to such remote places. Her answers are all so interesting, I didn't want to edit a thing, so here they are - unadulterated, unabridged, untouched and in full!

1.Jo, I positively gobbled ‘Hidden Tiger’. It simply carried me along, and I loved the fact you wrote it all in the present tense. It felt as if I was there with you and it really was all happening as I read it. Was this a deliberate choice, or do you always write in the present time?

It was a choice – though an easy one to make, as all the diaries are written in the present tense – often in cafés and bus stations along the way. So taming them in the present was much easier than putting it all in the past. I hope, also, that it is more fun for the reader – being swept along, as it were, rather than simply looking back.

2. Have you always been a traveller? I’ve been to your website, and there are some great trips described there, but how far back does your travel bug go?

I’ve wanted to travel since my teens, but it was much harder for women to take off then. And then I was taken up with work and children – so the travel dreams went on the back burner for a long time. But once my daughters were launched and I realised that independent travel might be possible – well, there was nothing stopping me then (apart from nerves – I still sit in the airport before I fly and wonder what I really think I’m doing!).

3. I loved the way you described all your feelings and reactions in Hidden Tiger – the fear of being so close to the tiger and the trepidation you felt on the Siddhartha highway after the cyclone. It all seemed very intense. Was any of this just a tiny bit embellished for the sake of the story, or was it all for real?

I have never been as scared in my life as I was coming down the Siddhartha highway after the cyclone. There was no need to embellish that at all. The tiger – well, that was surreal. I couldn’t quite believe I was being led closer and closer to it – so I have played with that a bit.

But you raise an interesting point – the role of ‘truth’ and ‘untruth’ in memoir. I never make incidents up – so everything in Hidden Tiger and in Over the Hill and Far Away actually happened, but as a writer I make judgements about what will make an interesting story, and so leave out days of sitting on buses or pottering about on beaches, even though this may give the reader the idea that it is one adventure after another.

4. You always seemed to make friends easily in the book. Is this normal for the Nepalese? Are they generally friendly and hospitable?

I love the Nepalese – yes, they are generally friendly and wonderfully generous. And I am permanently curious, and so ask questions from anyone who looks willing to talk. I am also willing to tell them about me, and about my life at home – which feels fair exchange for the stories they tell me, but that bit of the conversation doesn’t make it into the books. But it does make it easier to make reciprocal relationships.

5. As a woman travelling alone, do you feel this is a disadvantage, or do you find that you make more friends as a lone traveller than you would if you were with someone else?

I love travelling alone. Although I have to think about safety in a way that I might not have to if I had company, I find it easier to meet local people, many of whom find the concept of a woman travelling alone very strange and begin with the ‘where is your husband’ question. I generally tell the truth (he died), which somehow opens up the conversation making confidences possible and suddenly I’m invited home to tea. (I don’t always go! Sometimes a polite refusal is necessary.)

6. I read that you sing in a choir at home. Would you tell me something about that? What kind of music do your perform and do you sing in concerts?

It’s a Choral Society – and we do proper concerts at Christmas and Easter. I’ve sung Mozart’s Requiem and Jenkins’ The Armed Man – so it’s serious singing, but we have a lot of fun. And I love what it does to my head – I always come home from rehearsals humming. I think it’s impossible to sing and think about anything else, which is probably why I love it.

7. I noticed that most of your travelling has been to the east. Do you have any plans to go west at all?

I’ve done a couple of road trips in America, but not written about it. I found it hard to meet people there, and the scenery – while wonderful – is known to many from watching films. But you never know, I might go again.

And I really want to go to Africa – even wondered about Madagascar in January. But it’s the cyclone season (need I say more?)

8. When do you think you will be off on your next trip, and where will it be?

I’m off just after Christmas. I booked a flight to Bangkok on a wet Friday, when I was fed up with the weather! I’d like to head north into Laos, if I can find an easy land border (I think there’s a train) – so I’m at the Lonely Planet studying stage. But I’m definitely going.

9. You mentioned that you write a diary when you are away. How does this help you when it comes to writing your books afterwards? How do you decide what to use and what to keep just as memories?

I worked with a mentor when polishing Over the Hill and he said to cut anything that people could see on the telly and make this about me. It was a tough lesson, and involved masses of rewriting, but I think the books are better for it. So I try to think what will work for the reader – a good measure is people’s reactions when I talk about a trip: if their eyes glaze over I know that bit is tedious, but if I can make people laugh then I know I’m onto something.

10. Is there anything that you always take with you on your journeys? You know, that special thing that you won’t leave home without?

I have a ‘kit’ with all the usual emergency stuff – penknife, silk sleeping bag, elastic washing line, sewing kit, plasters etc.

My one extra, which most people don’t carry, is a small fleece blanket – probably designed for a dog basket. It’s light, squashes in the top of my rucksack – and I’ve used it on almost every trip. It’s great for places where the air conditioning is stuck on high and the room is too cold. It’s great for hostels where you might not get enough blankets. It’s great for throwing round your shoulders in the morning when you sit up in bed writing.

11. One last thing, as a writer, do you think of your travels as potential books before you start or have your books evolved from the travelling?

I’ve always written – and when I was working I wrote about work. But the instinct to keep thorough records was easy to transpose into writing a diary.

But the initial drive was to travel. It was when I came home and someone said, ‘You should write a book,’ that I began Over the Hill. Now – I don’t think it’s so easy to separate the two. In fact, I think the only thing that kept me almost sane coming down the Siddhartha highway was thinking how to write it – organising words in my head was the only think I could think of to distract me from the reality that we might fall off the mountain!

Thank you for a great opportunity to visit your blog, Val – what wonderful questions!

It's been a great pleasure, Jo. I was fascinated by the book and intrigued by all these different aspects of your life, so thank you so much for answering so frankly and candidly, particularly questions 3 and 11. These are aspects of writing that I think all of us who do it can relate to.

Thank you again, Jo, and good luck with both the book and your future travels!