Monday, 28 June 2010

Soundings - Making Books Talk in an old Methodist Church Hall

 The old Methodist Church Hall in Whitley Bay is the perfect place for Soundings Audio Books. The Methodists have always been big believers in the power of the word and the power of books. I went there on Wednesday last week to look round, meet the staff and see how audio books are produced. I did have a vague idea how of how it worked but it is digitised nowadays and more complicated than I had imagined and also a good deal faster than I had thought. Soundings has the most important thing of all, dedicated, knowledgeable people getting it right.
This is Peter Douglas from Ulverscroft with Gillian Bell who is the general manager at Soundings. When Peter arranges author talks at libraries he does all the difficult bits, sorting everything out with the librarians, collecting the author, the driving, the carrying of books, he's goes around and talks to everybody and then with a bit of luck after the talk there is lunch. He sells big print books and audios all over the north for Ulverscroft and gets to go to lovely Scottish islands to see what they want to read and hear there.
Gillian started as a typist at Soundings and worked her way up . She has a staff of eighteen and oversees the production of six books a month in three formats, from their recording in two purpose-built studios each operating seven days a week, through the editing, duplicating, quality control and despatch processes.
Soundings was started twenty one years ago by Derek and Stella Jones in the nearby Roxburgh Terrace, was acquired by Isis publishing in 1999 and became part of the Ulverscroft Group in January 2001.Ulverscroft do the distribution and invoicing and Isis buy the books and send them to Soundings.
Gillian decides who will read the books and has a core of people,some of whom have done many recordings. When choosing the reader consideration is given to the genre of book, the kind of characters, whether most of them are male or female, regional dialects and if it is a series, ensuring the the same reader is used to provide continuity.The reader is given the book about six weeks before recording begins and there is arithmetic to be considered too, the book has to be divided so that it fits the number of cassettes or CDs allocated to it.
 When we were there we were lucky enough to see a recording. The studios are two little rooms with a window between, one person reading into a microphone and the producer who also acts as engineer on the other side sitting in front of a computer. He can stop the reader if he makes a mistake or if anything needs to be altered. This is called drop editing. Gordon Griffith who was recording at the time has done over five hundred recordings for Soundings. 
 After this the script goes upstairs to the editing room where the two engineers rectify the drop editing and  adjust time and pacing. Music is added. Above is Alex who is married to Gillian and  in picture above is Steve, in the editing room.

This is Marie in the next office who deals with customers, invoicing and accountancy.
A master is made on CDs.The master is proof read to ensure that nothing has been missed and quality is assured. It is then sent for duplication. Hundreds of cassettes and CDs are duplicated weekly in this department using high speed machinery. Andy and Louis work in the duplicating department. Once the cassettes have been duplicated they are labelled, packed and despatched to Ulverscroft Large Print Books in Anstey for servicing to the library customers' specification before despatch.
In the storeroom Dave and Barrypack new releases to go to Isis and Ulverscroft and replacement orders for libraries.Mick and Glen in the department where they do new releases and load CDs for duplicating. The cassettes are labelled by machine for main release.And this is Dean, one of the producers having a well earned cup of coffee.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Water Aid - The Tea Party

I know it is said of women that they turn into their mothers when they get older but it seems to me that I am turning into my grandmother and my paternal one at that.  For a start we have the same name. She was Elizabeth Ellison until she married and then became Elizabeth Gill and I was named after her. 

Her family ran a number of pubs in the area. Grandma did  better than that, she practically ran Tow Law, the mining village where we lived when I was a child. She was famously late for church but since she was in the choir always walked straight to the front. She was on committees of various organisations and was the kind of housekeeper who had immaculately ordered cupboards. Grandma was a bit of a goer and loved dancing, whereas Grandpa, having been brought up as a Methodist either didn't know how to dance or didn't care to. So she went on her own.
I love dancing. I embarrass my friends by getting up and asking for very raunchy music. I like the sounds to bang off the ceiling and pour down the walls.  I look like Grandma, who, alas was not one of the great beauties of her day. Also my cupboards are beginning to be organised and I want to help to run things.

Soroptimists International Durham of which I am a proud member had a tea party at my house last weekend for Water Aid, the wonderful charity which  brings clean water to the poorest African countries. 

This was the notion of my friend, Barbara who is a long time sorop. as we call ourselves and I think in her last existence must have owned teashops.  We planned to have a garden party but the weather was cold and windy.

Above is Barbara wearing a hat and apron. She made these for the waitresses, she also made exquisite meringues, butterfly cakes and she bought or found three tiered cake stands, old fashioned tea sets and different coloured little jugs for the tables.

This is Sandra, standing beside the tombola table in my tiny garden room. She swept the patio, put out tables and chairs into the garden on Thursday and did her waitressing bit on Saturday. She also made hundreds of small sandwiches cut neatly into squares.
The intimacy of the two small rooms ( kitchen apart ) which I have downstairs meant that people had to talk to one another and they certainly did. For six hours they ate wonderful homemade food, drank tea or coffee, chatted and were looked after by the fantastic team of volunteers in the kitchen,washing up and carrying  plates of cakes backwards and forwards.
This is Vyvyenne, one of the most dedicated sorops. with her mum who introduced her to the idea.My sitting room, enhanced by Barbara's lovely mum and Margaret, who is not only a soroptimist but works for the British Red Cross.

Margaret who is the best organised person I know and is secretary of S.I.Durham. Margaret is the sort of person  who would put her hands into the dyke to stop the water coming out and succeed. On her right is Frances who has been a good friend right from when I joined the sorops.Our president, Maureen, sitting on my Laura Ashley sofa.

Alywn and her daughter. Alwyn I got to know when we had coffee last year at the Botanic Garden.Pat, who looked after me when I joined the sorops. in the same colour outfit as my house which was very tasteful  of her and to her left, Kate, past president, and friends.Vera, friend, businesswoman and tireless charity workerHelen and Graham, my friends who live near Shotley Bridge.Liz, Books on Wheels volunteer, expert flower arranger and one of the friends I frequently have coffee with.Joan and Malcolm ( see previous post ) who were celebrating having been married a whole week.

It is said that when my grandma worked at her parents' pub, The Station Hotel at Consett, that she lined the pints up on the bar for the workmen coming in and regaled them with dirty stories.  I could hear myself on Saturday telling people what to do and trying to make others laugh. My daughter too is a big organiser, very bossy and funny. Some of that she gets from her paternal grandmother who was another powerful woman.  She would imitate other people to make us laugh and I can hear it now in my daughter's voice.

So thank you, Grandma, for my fat cheeks, my love of dancing, my name and my ability to make others laugh. I remember you as an old lady giving me money when I went to see you. Grandma said 'Money's round and meant to go round' and that's what we believe in Soroptimists International. Money is to go round us all and hold off poverty, lack of education and violence against women. We raised almost £400 on Saturday and are planning to do it again next year and you can all wear hats if you want to.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Love Story - Joan and Malcolm's wedding

I've been writing about people's relationships for thirty years but no story has pleased me more than the one which envolved during the past two years for my friends, Joan and Malcolm.

 My part in this started fifty years ago when a tall curly haired man became my much loved teacher, Mr Sutherland. I was ten and he was teaching the top class at Tow Law Junior Mixed and Infants. I didn't see him again after I left school until a few years ago when he was retired and I was a writer and he asked me if I would speak at an organisation to which he belonged. Barrie introduced me to his wife Joan and we had dinner.

A short time after this Barrie died and Joan was left on her own.  I wrote saying how sorry I was and she came over for coffee and we sat and had a good moan about how hard being widowed is and how little appreciated we felt. Joan's earlier marriage, when she was very young, had ended in divorce.  We went out and about, we had lunch, we went to concerts and she introduced me to other people in Durham.

Malcolm's wife,Gwen,died of cancer and he too was left alone. He too had had an earlier marriage but his second marriage, like Joan's had been very successful and happy. I don't think either of them thought they would find somebody else, I don't think either of them thought they would fall in love again.

The first time I met Malcolm he was trying to help me. I can't remember what it was with now, but something in the house.Malcolm is six foot six and has bright blue eyes. He is the kind of man who blots out the world when he hugs you. He is funny, kind, and is the sort of person who can put up fitted cupboards, very capable and organised. He's good at making friends.

  Joan has this same capacity towards other people. It is a rare gift. Joan always laughs at my funny stories. There aren't many friends I can say that of. We have lunch on Mondays, a great way to start the week.

I don't think it was a big surprise to people that they decided to get married but even so there is something wonderful about getting married when you are in your sixties and in Malcolm's case seventy ( only just! ). There is something optimistic and wildly romantic and big about accepting the past while going forward confidently into the future.

Joan and Malcolm were married last Saturday at Crook Hall in Durham. If you haven't been to Crook Hall you've missed a treat. I go there to walk through the gardens and sit by the fire and write. The people who run it have done a great deal of work on the twelve gardens which open one into another. The house itself is partly 12th century medieval hall and part Georgian. It sits above the city and you can see Durham cathedral through its front windows.

This is the medieval hall where they were married.  We gathered outside to drink champagne and came indoors for cake. Then people wandered about the gardens and halfway through the afternoon we sat outside under the copper beeches in the shade because the sun had got out and we had tea and scones with clotted cream and jam. It was the perfect way to spend a summer's afternoon.

The gallery above the medieval hall. 
The garden in front of the house which looks out towards the city.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Room to Breathe ( Walking in the Lakes )

I never get Writer's Block. I'm not sure whether this is because I write for a living and my bank account won't allow it or because having written for thirty years it's like breathing or because I love writing so much that I can hardly go a day without it. I do however despair when it goes badly - when I can tell it's going badly, sometimes I can't tell whether I'm writing well or not. I think my ideas will fail me. They never do, I always get there and I feel traitrous to me the writer because she is always there for me but like every other relationship I'm plagued with doubts. When this happens I need space and time away from desks and computers.

Walking has always been useful for me, it frees up ideas. When I first started writing professionally and I lived at Ramshaw, near Barnard Castle I would take the dogs out and walk up the old railway line from where our house stood and by the time I came back I would have solved whichever writing problem I had. Nowadays I understand my writing self more and know that eventually I will sort out the problem anyway and perhaps the walking has become a passion in itself.

This week I went to Cumbria to visit my cousin. She lives in the country to the west of Carlisle and on a sunny summer evening you can see the silver line of the Moray Firth from the windows of her conservatory beyond the fields which are deep in buttercups, where the cattle are half hidden and the sun goes down late. There are house martins nesting - they fly around the eves and swoop deep in the garden.
The first day we went up above Bassenthwaite and walked across Sale Fell with her labrador and came home in the middle of the evening.
The second day we went to Troutbeck above Windermere where there were Herdwick sheep, a very old hardy breed probably introduced to the Lake District by Norse settlers, belted Galloway Scottish woolly cattle, dark ponies on the low ground, bright gorse which was almost orange and in Windermere itself the rhododendrons were lush in the gardens, orange, pink and purple.

The days were warm and overcast, the sun breaking through every now and then. We carried our coats and talked about our children, our families and our concerns. We spent three hours walking and we had a picnic beneath a shady tree. We met lots of people, everybody spoke and some of the sheep stared - they are not really concerned, they see too many visitors for that.
Lovely piebald horses and other foreign ones I didn't recognise with deep tan bodies and black tails live in the fields there and the houses are well constructed, many of them old, some Victorian where people used to leave London and come here for the summer. The picture at the top is the Mortal Man where Wordsworth and his friends used to gather.
Barns have been as carefully constructed as houses.
Rivulets of clear water run down from the tops of the hillsI came back feeling rested and refreshed and ready to work.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Magna Large Print Books, The Gem in the Dales

There are some very lucky writers in the world, there are those who make it rich, there are those who have a long and varied career and then there are those of us who are published in big print and audio by Magna Large Print Books.
The first thing you notice about it is that they so obviously aren't in London. Magna is based in a gorgeous little village not far from Skipton amidst some of the most wonderful scenery with which God thought fit to grace the earth.
It was founded in 1974 by Margaret and Derek Cressey. Originally the firm was born in Litton,set back in a very remote area of the Yorkshire Dales and then for a brief time in Lancashire at Bolton in Bowland. However, it was soon obvious that the firm was going to grow and succeed and so needed good transport links. It was then that Magna moved to an old wool warehouse upon the village green in the centre of Long Preston. It was bought by Ulverscroft Large Print, still to be under the name of Magna, to be a library supplier of large print and unabridged audios.
Presently it has sixteen full time staff with the longest serving member over 22 years and the shortest serving four years. When Margaret and Derek left in 1991 their son John was made manager.  In 2000 John left and was replaced by Diane Allen, who is to this day the manager of Magna along with rights assistant, Helen Bibby and deputy manager David Mellin.
Over the years Magna has grown from  back in the 1970s publishing two large print titles per month to the present day publishing of fourteen hardback titles and six paperback titles per month in large print. To complement their large print list they publish eight unabridged audio titles per month in cassette, CD and MP3 CD format.  At present they are looking at the possibility of downloading their titles for use by the libraries. They supply all libraries throughout the UK and in partnership with their parent firm supply America, Canada and Australia.
Ulverscroft Large Print is thriving and is now known as The Ulverscroft Group which includes Unlvesrcroft Large Print, Isis Publishing, Soundings and Magna Large Print Books. Details of which can be found on
The staff at Magna are always welcoming. Visiting them is like being asked to a particularly good party where you are the star guest. They manage to combine efficiency with sheer brilliant hospitality. They say 'come and visit us if you are in the area' so you make sure you are as often as you can because you get taken out to lunch, your get taken out to dinner, you get offered coffee, you spend time basking in the warmth of real Yorkshire people. It doesn't matter how busy they are they always have time for you.
This photograph is of the Romantic Novelists Association Northern Group, The Flying Ducks.  Diane Allen and Helen Bibby are part of this group and they are seen on the back row. Hiding off to the left is Mark Merrill of Ulverscroft and the lady in the green scarf is agent, Judith Murdoch.  It was one of lots of happy days we've spent together.
Magna have been publishing my big print editions since 1995 so I have been asked there many times, I'm happy to report. They publish my books in audio too.
This enabled me to become part of the Books on Wheels Programme which operates in County Durham, a service for people who can't easily get out to libraries - it brings libraries to them. I am very happy to be involved in such a wonderful scheme that benefits so many people They have many volunteers who deliver the books and audios and operate a scheme where people can be a bookclub by telephone and talk about what they have read or listened to. Two or three times a year we have parties when people are bussed in for good food and grand entertainment.
When I first began to write professionally I envisaged a lot of things but I didn't think I would be as lucky as to make so many friends and be involved in so many great times.
This is  my trilogy set in Durham before, during and after the Second World War. The first was my mother's story, the second my aunt's and the third was a story I made up about the woman who ran my father's office at the steelworks. Swan Island is an old name for Elvet - a part of Durham, Sweet Wells I named after a farm in the Durham dales, though in the book it is a village and Silver Street is the name of a winding cobbled road which leads up into the Market Place in Durham. So three very different women and their stories, based around a man and a steel foundry and how they fared in their lives which were affected so much as so many people were by the war.  These are the lovely covers which Magna put on them and they are also published in audio.