Saturday, 31 December 2011

Postcard from Suffolk

Very few pleasures in life beat pulling into the drive of your childhood home at 1.01am the day before Christmas Eve. The long drive south is mitigated by the quiet joy of familiarity—the clack of the front door as I pull it (quietly) behind me, the click of the light switches (unchanged since the house was built in 1950), the way the house stretches and creaks like an arthritic old lady.

And once dawn breaks, my first glimpse of Suffolk in daylight. Acres of green, the copse where deer live, the vaporous plume from the sugar beet factory.

All these ordinary details combine to make up the lining, the stitching, the flounces and frills of a magic cloak: slip it on as you arrive in your favourite and most familiar part of the world and you feel ten feet tall.

But it’s not just my personal relationship with Suffolk that makes it great. It’s a Land of Plenty—great sweeps of arable land, chocolate-box villages, grand old houses, an old-fashioned coast. And life here is good: unemployment is low and life expectancy high. Amazingly, the ONS published data this year claiming that a girl born in Moreton Hall in my home town of Bury St Edmunds could live to 128.

To my mind, nowhere epitomises the unique charm of Suffolk more than Lavenham. Built on the riches of the wool trade in the fifteenth century, you won’t find anywhere prettier with its half-timbered houses. In shades of pink and yellow and white, they could be gingerbread houses decorated with icing. Villages such as Kersey, Monks Eleigh and Long Melford are handmaids to the beauty queen. And if you’re down that way, the thatched thirteenth century St James’s Chapel at Lindsey, not far from Kersey, draws you in with its quietly dark atmosphere.
Grand homes are plenty: Ickworth House, in its Italianate splendour, Melford and Kentwell Halls, both in Long Melford. And the stunning Norman Tower and Abbey Gate of Bury St Edmunds, reminder of the now-ruined abbey’s mighty past.
The Abbey Gate, Bury St Edmunds

The coast delights and intrigues—the cheery beach huts of Southwold with its incongruous view of Sizewell B nuclear power station, Dunwich, the city lost to the sea, where on a quiet day you can hear the bells toll a watery lament…

But it’s not these great landmarks of Suffolk that I love best. I would instantly exchange the prettiness of Dedham Vale for the flat, infinite land north-east of Bury St Edmunds where I grew up. Why flatness is spurned I don’t know, for flatness means the freedom of an endless viewpoint, to walk unhindered for miles until you feel you might fall off the edge of the world, to devour the limitless sky. The freedom of this landscape confers on you a feeling of majesty.

One of my favourite walks is to follow the path from Great Livermere to Ampton, from one gatehouse to the next. To your right you’ll see the Church of St Peter, and in the distance, the ruined church at Little Livermere. Cross the mere and birds returning from their travels skid onto the surface of the water, sending out ripples as far as you can see. They may not be beautiful, but there is something about their grace that makes them enchanting. Once they have settled the only sound is the wind in the tall pine trees. Look down and you’ll see the remains of a bird—this is shooting country, don’t forget—and discarded cartridges. It’s as if it’s been vaporised—only a skeleton and a few grey feathers remain.
Great Livermere

So late in the year this landscape is bleak, but beguilingly so. Apart from the gatehouses and the churches, there seems no trace of human life, and the intense greens and blues on a bright winter’s day make the surroundings other-worldly. It’s not until you cross the long, wooden bridge over Ampton Water and Ampton Hall (built in 1892 in Jacobean style to replace the old hall destroyed by fire seven years previously) comes into view that you are reassured that there is civilisation out there.

Ampton Hall
We’ll return in the spring, when the mere will be bursting and noisy with life and when we’ll meet other walkers on the long, wild path. Until then, I’ll keep another precious Suffolk memory tucked away safely in my heart…
Tell me about the place you call home.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Re-reading the Classics

War and Peace. Middlemarch. Heart of Darkness. No, none of these, for I haven’t read them first time round. I’m talking the classic tales of my childhood…and the thrill of rediscovering them as an adult.

I have to start with the best book ever written: The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith (1956). Within its covers you will find everything that makes a good story. An edge-of-the-seat plot—97 Dalmatian puppies held in a spooky old house in Suffolk are rescued from a future as fur coats at the eleventh hour. (The remaining four of the 101 Dalmatians are Pongo and Missis, parents of 15 of the puppies, their nanny Perdita, and her lost—and found—love, Prince.) A whole selection box of characters: the larger-than-life Cruella de Vil, sensible Missis, sweet, fragile Perdita, the bumbling villains who guard the stolen puppies, and so on. Fast-paced action that jumps between a smart area of London to rural Suffolk and back. Romance and reconciliation. And the absolute glory of it being a Dalmatian-fest and set in the Promised Land of Suffolk. And to boost the feel-good factor, the puppies are rescued the day before Christmas Eve! I treat myself to a re-read at this time of year every four years, and I’m due to dig out my dog-eared copy at my mum’s this very Christmas. So picture me this Christmas Eve, curled up in bed in my childhood bedroom, book in one hand, mince pie in the other. That’s my idea of a rocking good time! Ahem, I’ll just get down off my soap-box before we move on to…

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. An eccentric fossil collector and explorer (Great Uncle Matthew or “Gum”) separately brings home three little girls from his travels for his great-niece to bring up. Pauline, Petrova and Posy adopt the surname “Fossil” and vow to put their name in history books ‘because it’s our very own, and nobody can say it’s because of our grandfathers’. The girls all go on to drama school, where Pauline shines as an actress and Posy as a ballet dancer, but where tomboy Petrova struggles to fit in. Happily, she goes on to find her own path in life—when Gum returns at the end of the book he pledges to help her realise her dream of becoming a pilot. I like this touch. The moral of the story is everyone has a unique talent, and the sky’s the limit. Written in 1936, I think this book is pretty egalitarian and feminist and a little bit ahead of its time. I do love a bit of old-fashioned drama school and a bit of ballet, so it’s a winning combination for me.

Before you think I’ve gone too girly, let’s go on to The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. Published in 1956, it tells the tale of three Polish siblings left to fend for themselves when their parents are taken by the Nazis. Their father manages to escape the prison camp where he is held and returns to the site of his home. Nothing remains but rubble, and his wife and children are gone. He finds a boy, Jan, sitting where his house once stood, holding his wife’s letter opener—the Silver Sword of the title—which he allows him to keep. The father sets off to Switzerland, where he believes he will find his wife. After many twists and turns, the children, who pal up with Jan, embark on an odyssey across Europe to find their parents, the Silver Sword accompanying them. There’s a happy reunion at the end but the drama, near-misses and suspense along the way will make you weep. It’s so touching, of course, because it could be the true story of thousands of families within living memory. And the story stands the test of time, I know, as I inherited my brother’s (23 years my senior) book and I in turn gave a copy to my 12-year-old goddaughter, who has devoured it with relish. Definitely one for the boys and the girls…

I could go on ad infinitum: Black Beauty, The Wizard of Oz, The Phoenix and the Carpet, any of the Famous Five books (the gut-wrenching suspense as you reached the dénouement!)…but why don’t you tell me which books you loved as a child and which you revisit every now and then for that heady combination of nostalgia, escapism and pure literary joy?

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

A Portrait of Blaydon Cemetery

A handy shortcut to the shops, Blaydon Cemetery (Blaydon-on-Tyne, Tyne and Wear, England) is at first glance well-kept and…unremarkable. The shortcut being part of my daily routine, I started looking for points of interest to make the commute to the shops and playgroups of Blaydon more bearable. It’s amazing what you can see when you start looking.

The cemetery is situated on a bank (hill). Stand at its top and you have a panorama of the western edge of Newcastle. The razzle-dazzle of the city’s Quayside, the iconic Tyne and Millennium bridges and the Gateshead Sage may be a couple of miles downstream, but look carefully and lesser-known icons—and imprints from icons past—can be seen right here before you. 
Reminders of the area’s industrial heritage—the one remaining glassworks cone at Lemington, for instance— punctuate the landscape. There was coal mining here, too. Offices now have replaced industry—including the very building where I used to work and from where I would gaze back across the flat, grey expanse of the Tyne to a future of pushing a pram and manhandling a recalcitrant toddler. It seems a whole world away now.

Scotswood Road, its route running parallel to that of Hadrian’s Wall, lies before you.  To the east the Cruddas Park tower blocks, stars of the TV series Our Friends in the North, stand tall.
The road comprises part of the route for the annual Blaydon Race for runners as it heads from Newcastle city centre to Blaydon. Originally a horse race, the event is immortalised in the song Blaydon Races, composed by Georgie Ridley in 1862 and known as the unofficial anthem of Tyneside.
You can see Scotswood Bridge from here, too. Built in 1967, it replaced the old Chain Bridge mentioned in Blaydon Races, and is the gateway to the Metro Centre.
Scotswood was once a lively community, home to many Vickers Armstrong (manufacturers of armaments and vehicles, amongst other things) workers. More recently, the area suffered from the decline in industry followed by high unemployment and population loss. Happily, the area’s fortunes are set to come full circle as a vast swathe now lies cleared and waiting for redevelopment.
Back to the cemetery itself. Of course, every headstone tells a story. Foreign names, clearly not indigenous to Blaydon. What brought them here? The little girl who was born and died on the same day. A young man gone to join his mam and dad. A sprinkling of octogenarians, and a 99-year-old.  And at this time of year, the poignancy of headstones decorated with bright tinsel, Santas and other trinkets.

And, for me, a hobbyist eavesdropper, the treat of snatches of conversation as people pass through—‘I got four of these for a poond, special offer, like’. The wheezing man I meet halfway up the bank who winks as he tells me he’s stopping for a tab (cigarette) to help him get to the top. An old lady calls out from tending a grave, ‘Eeehh, it’s a hard pull for you up the bank, pet!’ ‘It’s good exercise!’ I shout back, struggling for breath. ‘Aye, I used to walk it meself, like. I cannat walk now, mind,’ she says, cheerfully indicating her walking stick.

The words of other walkers never fail to cheer me, the local lilt as much as the content. And even now, in a cemetery in the north of England in mid-winter, there are other reasons to smile. Look down to see tiny green pinpricks of life pushing through the earth. And look upwards and last spring’s nests can be seen like dormant hearts in the skeleton trees—there is life, there is hope.
What makes your daily commute more interesting? Let me know!

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

What Magazine Editors Want for Christmas

A pair of Dalmatian puppies, one with a tartan bow round its neck, the other a red one. A Sellotape dispenser. The biggest bottle of Chanel No 5 available. A private audience with Colin Briggs. A box of Ferrero Collection 48 pieces (499 grams). A housekeeper.
Second to the above list, this is what this editor wants for Christmas. (Or, how to increase your chances of getting published in Vintage Script magazine.) 
All excerpts and references are from stories and articles published in the current edition of Vintage Script.
The X Factor
You know what it’s like—you read the first paragraph and you’re hooked. Take the opening lines of The Poppet by Lucy Charles: ‘Northamptonshire, 1649. He slumped in my doorway. Black against the autumn sky, his shape fell sack-like against the wall. The hens churred, but nothing else. We were at the edge of town. The few travellers were usually passing, not staying. He whispered: “Ann.”’ Intrigue. Imagery. Suspense. Lots of questions to be answered. Love it!
It could be an original idea—Deborah Fielding’s story Office at Night, 1940 is her interpretation of the Edward Hopper painting of the same name. Or a turn of phrase. Maybe a little-known subject (if you didn’t know Hannah Glasse was the original celebrity chef, you do now thanks to Michael Harwood), or a fresh perspective on a well-known topic (A Walk Round the Cathedral is Lynda Kempsey’s own personal tour of the nooks and crannies of Durham Cathedral). It’s got to be something you won’t find on Wikipedia.
Upbeat Subject Matter
Eclectic. Quirky. Uplifting. Insightful. That’s the word on the street about Vintage Script. This means that an article on the history of mirrors (see Michael Montagu’s And Now I See Through a Glass, Darkly) is going to have the edge on a study of childhood mortality in Victorian inner cities. Not that we don’t deal with serious subjects—we do. It’s just that our readers are looking for a bit of escapism and who can blame them?

Ability to Tell a Story

A good story has a beginning, middle and end and lots of thrills and spills in-between. As simple as that. (The same formula applies to articles.) Sadly, we’ve had to reject some really good writing simply because it lacked one of these elements—most frequently a strong ending. And endings that fizzle out impart the same sense of disappointment you get when you bite into a stale Digestive or suppress a sneeze.
Attention to Detail
A good grasp of grammar and presentation and the ability to follow submission guidelines really help. Read Vintage Script writer David Williams’ blog post Preparing for publication—you’ll find lots of tips on revising text and proofreading (albeit his novel, but the same principles apply).
A Bit of Flattery
It’s a really good idea to buy a copy of the magazine you are submitting to. Then you can work out all of the above for yourself and enjoy a lovely little literary treat to boot!
If All Else Fails…
…refer to the list in the introductory paragraph.
The deadline for submissions for the winter edition of Vintage Script is 13 December 2011.