Friday, 30 July 2010

Devil Water - the Inspiration

When a writer does talks people often ask why they started writing. It's a question I very often put to myself on a bad day but since I am incapable of doing anything else -


The reason I wanted to be a  historical novelist and to write about the area I come from began when I was twelve and I read Devil Water by Anya Seton. I don't remember having been excited by history before and the first half of this book is pure history in the hands of a master novelist. It's the story of the Jacobite rebellions and the Earls of Derwentwater, in particular, James, the third earl, who came home to his lands from France when the political scene allowed and his brother, Charles and the story is set in Northumberland, amidst some of the most beautiful ground in Britain.

Devil Water is a real burn which flows under Lord's Bridge and below the ruins of Dilston Castle, the home of the Radcliffe family. There is a village called Radcliffe over towards the coast and the family were so well loved by the people around them that when James lost his life in the Jacobite cause that night the northern lights were so bright that the local people saw it as a sign and since then in the area  they are called Lord Derwentwater's Lights.
The Lord Crewe Arms

James set to to built a great house for his family. It was never finished but you can go and see  the tower house which was part of the west wing and the chapel - last time I was there several years ago I had the joy of being given the enormous keys which opened the chapel which added a certain amount of fun to the venture.

The site is very old,  a house was built there in the 12th century. The book is about the folk in the north who favoured the Stuart cause and how hopelessly they followed their leaders. It is thought that the people of Newcastle are called Geordies now because they followed the Hanover cause and would not join the Jacobites, nor let them inside the city.

I won't spoil the story, if you haven't read it, by telling you the outcome. It's enough to say that Anya Seton wrote a great many very good books but apparently she was inspired when she went to see the ruins of Dilston Castle and passed over the bridge above The Devil Water. And that inspired me to write about the north east because I love it so much and her writing shows that she loved Northumberland.  This is the reason why Donna Leon's books about Venice are good -  because of the sense of place, and Ian Rankin's  novels about Edinburgh and dozens of other writers who care about the places where they write.

Charles Radcliffe escaped his captors and was hidden in the priest's hole by his mistress, Dorothy Forster at the Lord Crewe Arms in Blachland. Charles Radcliffe used to ride over there when he was young to visit the pub and the girls and his friends.
The Northumberland moors in July

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Mrs Fleming's and Mrs Gill's Dales Diary

Does anybody remember Mrs Dale's Diary?? No, neither do I much but I think I remember there being a Doctor Dale and it all being terrible pukkah. Anyway, it makes a good title for the day out that Leah Fleming and I had today.
I love the Yorkshire Dales but not being behind a tractor with a double trailer loaded with shredded wheat hay bales, or sitting in my little car, fuming in Bedale because the roads are up in the holiday season. It usually takes me about an hour to get to Leyburn but today was rather longer. It is worth it, however to meet my mate and talk about writing.
Counter with cakes behind happy customers
Leah Fleming

My writing friends are spread all over the country. We do our best to get together whenever we can.  Leyburn is about equidistant for Leah and me to meet and we have our favourite cafe there. Serendipity. We meet for coffee, they make great coffee and then we have lunch, they make great soup, toasties, sandwiches and then we have tea and - yes, you are right, they make great cake. We had banana cake.
Writing is one of those things which only writers can talk about. Perhaps every business, every industry is the same and people who aren't involved don't understand and even other people within the industry have no idea how a book is produced by a writer. Actually we don't really know either but we tend not to say that. We can however talk about it hour after hour and that's the fun of being in business, the chat. And also you don't feel alone because writers have the same problems and it helps to talk about them and often it's inspiring to talk, it lightens the soul!  if you like.  I feel motivated when I come home.
Leyburn main street.
Leah Fleming and I have been friends for many years. My life would have been much poorer and much less fun without her. I imagine us as old ladies - many years from now, of course - looking back and being amazed at how hard we tried, how much the writing mattered and how lucky we were.
August 1st is Yorkshire Day and here is Leah in the Tourist Information Office where we went just to be nosy. She assures me that Yorkshire Day is something to do with the Wars of the Roses.  I will have to take her word for it, it's too far south for those of us who live in Durham.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Picnic in the Park at St Cuthbert's Hospice

Saturday threatened heavy rain but managed only the odd shower -  just as well because at St Cuthbert's Hospice we were running around making money with stalls which had books, flower arrangements, cards, jewellery, cakes, a huge teddy bear being raffled ( I think, I never got that far! ) and lots more.

 The cafe had a queue so long that we had to open the dining room, the sitting room and the interview room, everybody wanted tea and buns and cakes and sandwiches.

There were four people at one point behind the counter, including Barbara, soroptimist and Sandra her friend and they were working full belt.

I was recruited to help, not a wise choice as I am  a bull in a china shop when it comes to tills and I was meant to be selling books outside but Frances and Cheryl were sorting out the books and cakes so I had to help inside. I also ended up moving lots of chairs, the better to accommodate all those hungry people.

Top photograph is the gardeners selling produce from the gardens. They very often find lovely flowers for me at the back of the hospice in the beds where they raise flowers and vegetables so that the hospice can be bright with blooms and eat fresh produce.
This is Ben, the yellow lab.  Ben is very quiet and friendly, Jet is energetic and friendly, both lovely. The photograph of Jet with dog handler, Claire Kerr, is at the bottom. The hospice is having a Sponsored Dog walk on Sunday October 10th.

 This started last year and was a smash hit with 100 dogs putting their best paws forward for the hospice. This year the walk is at Houghall Woodlands with a brand new walk and activites and treats for the dogs, including agility challenges, doggy bags and rosettes. Registration is £10 plus sponsorship and you can download a registration form from . For information contact Rachel Jobson on 0191 386 1170 or   Registration closes on October 1.

Durham Miners Association Brass Band played, dozens of people came out to support us and we made just over £200 on the books and cakes.  The whole venture made £2,000 for the hospice so we were very pleased with our day's work.
Stalls included two books stalls, both of which did well. I bought two wonderful Asian cookbooks from the other stall.
I didn't get the names of these two gentlemen but they were working very hard doing their bit to help raise more money. The hospice provides free care for people with life limiting illnesses in north Durham.  It must raise £1million every year to meet running costs.

Carole Lynn is Guest Services Coordinator at the hospice. Here she is doing her bit, selling hot dogs outside the front of the building.
This is Frances, one of the Soroptimists behind our stall, selling homemade cakes and secondhand books.
Teddy bear making money and behind this the card stall.
Claire and Jet, out and about.

The Durham Miners Association Band who kept us entertained after the brief rain showers.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Heroes and Villains - An Ideal Husband

I wish I knew how to write a play. It is as incomprehensible to me as composing, painting or even making decent pastry! You can either do it or you can't. The thing about a play is that you can see it over and over again because each time it is put on it is different because of the director, because of the actors, because of the venue, the circumstances, even the audience alters it and there is always something new in it, something you hadn't seen before, especially in a play like this which is so brilliantly written that it unfolds before you, layer after layer, like an onion every time.
An Ideal Husband is my favourite play and last Saturday night when I was staying nearby I went to Dunham Massey, one of the National Trust's most glorious houses to see an outdoor production of the Oscar Wilde play.  Almost always when I go to things like this it rains but Saturday evening was warm and the light was perfect. We trudged from the car park, through the grounds with fold up seats, a picnic and our umbrellas, just in case.
The people putting on the play were called Heartbreak Productions and can be contacted at and they were wonderful.  It was theatre in the round which I had never seen before and imagine most difficult to direct and play but they did it beautifully.  Five actors, each with two parts, in a kind of Upstairs Downstairs way, they  played a main part and that of a servant, the servants dressing up and becoming the aristocrats.
The Orangerie

The point of the play is that there is no such thing as an ideal husband though Lord Goring, for all his imperfections, is great fun and if I could have him I'd be very pleased - rich, indolent, witty, wears a suit well, and is smarter than anybody else. I put him into my books all the time though very often he has a profession. He's Bertie Wooster and Mr Darcy - though I have to say I prefer the villains in Jane Austen, I love Willoughby and Wickham and try to give my heroes flaws. I always want to rewrite Pride and Prejudice so that Elizabeth marries Wickham who is much more fun than Mr Darcy. Heathcliff is too much the villain for my comfort and when it comes to the Brontes I prefer The Tenant ofWildfell Hall and the farmer Helen meets, Gilbert Markham.         
Five minutes before the end of the play it began to rain very heavily but briefly and they stopped while people donned macs, and then carried on to rapturous applause.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Hardwick Park, Youth and Follies

Hardwick Park was bought by John Burdon, a Newcastle merchant, in1748. It was designed as a pleasure park which was already in disarray by the end of the century but has been brought back to life and more by Durham County Council. I go there to have lunch with friends and I always go a couple of hours early and walk around the lakes and then go into the cafe and have coffee before the others arrive. Last week I went there with the Sorops. as a summer outing. We got a circuit walk around the serpentine lake, past some of the follies which have been restored over a period of several years and then had supper.

I used to go to Hardwick Hall dancing when I was very young and the Young Farmers dances were all the thing. Not that I was a young farmer or that my boyfriend was either but his best friend lived in the country and they had gone to college and then university together, so very often, the summer that I was nineteen we went to dances. You used to go to the pub first -of course - and then to the dance and there bands, they were rather like Oasis, very loud, very creative and we knew them all and I love dancing and he loved dancing and there were a great crowd of us. Everybody knew everybody which is always fun.

There was only one fight that I remember - it was at Hardwick - and my friend, Linda and I had to hold back our boyfriends - literally - why can men not stay out of these things?? One lad got his shirt ripped off his back and Linda's boyfriend, who was very large, banged two lads' heads together.
We used to drink black velvet ( cider and guinness ), eat lots of Chinese takeaways and spend our weekends at motor races. The smell of Castrol GTX. Very sexy.

Statue of Neptune on a lovely summer's evening last week.
The Gothic gatehouse has not  been restored. The circular tower is 100mm out of vertical and people think of it as our local tower of Pisa.
Ducks and ducklings, for no reason. I just like them. Lots of birds at the Park. Wildlife is very well looked after.
The beautiful bridge in evening sunlight.
Temple of Minerva at the far side of the lake.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Brass, Lass

I love music. It doesn't matter what kind, as long as it's being  beautifully played, I love it all. Best is live. We are lucky in Durham, we have concerts all the year round, in the Gala theatre - in the main auditorium and in the studio which seats people at small tables and there is a bar ( bliss ), in the Town Hall, at Elvet Methodist Church, at North Road Methodist Church, St Cuthbert's, in the pubs and in the streets.
I don't understand music and that's why I like it. When I go to the cinema or the theatre half of me remains the critic and pulls the whole thing to pieces both at the time and afterwards and that's part of the fun but it can be exhausting. But then, give me a piece of Mozart or a jazz melody or a song and I haven't a clue how the composer got it together. It's like painting, can't do it, don't want to, just want to admire it. And admire the talent and the joy and music uplifts me as much as champagne. Music helps me to write, to relax, to get closer to the rhythms of life, if that makes any sense.
We have the Brass festival on in Durham at the moment and oh wow, have they gone to a lot of trouble. The organisers and the people taking part ought to be given a medal.All over the area brass bands from all over the world are playing music.This is Lanchester Brass Band playing outside the Gala theatre on a sunny Saturday. All free.

Black Bottom Brass Band playing on Elvet Bridge . They come from Japan.Maceo Parker and his band, featuring Dennis Rollins playing to great acclaim ( lots of people up and dancing, everybody clapping and shouting! ) at the Gala theatre.  It was a magical performance.And I have no idea who these people are but I was walking into town one day last week and there they were, giving it all they had at the far end of North Road just before you get to Framwelgate Bridge. I love living in Durham!

Monday, 5 July 2010

July - my least favourite month of the year

Does everybody have a least favourite month of the year, a time when they feel as if they're holding their breath all the way through in case something goes wrong?  I tell myself how illogical it is to hate something as kind of non real as a month but I do. When the hedgerows are filled with lacy elderflowers, the willowherb turns purple and people's gardens are sweet with the scent of roses I grit my teeth and tell myself that it will soon be August.

My husband died in July, my mother died in July, I found out that I had breast cancer in July, my wedding anniversary is - yes you guessed it and I lost the best job I ever had in July. I have had good Julys. I once stayed with some friends in Warwickshire for two wonderful weeks and found out I had had a book accepted for publication which I cared about very much.

 However, in the main, I hate every second of it.  This year I spent the first day of July in one of the places I love best and so I offer it up to you now, Stanhope in Weardale, County Durham. The Durham dales can be bleak in winter ( the time I like best ) but are loveliest of all now, the narrow valley so green that it hurts your eyes, the sheep have been sheared, dog roses dot the hedges, the river runs low and clear and grey, shallow over big flat stones, little farms stand brave on the skyline and nestle in the lower fields and the cattle come down to the bottom gulleys in the fields to drink, which gave me the title for one of my books, Sweet Wells.

When I go to the hairdresser's and they tell me what wonderful exciting places they are going to for their holidays and they politely ask me where I am going. I always tell them Stanhope.

It's not far, it doesn't involve any delays in airports, dirty trains or traffic queues ( unless you get behind a tractor) and even that isn't too bad in August because if anything August is better than July in Weardale because the bell heather comes out and the whole place is carpeted with purple. April is good there too because of the lambs dashing about the fields. May is good because you might even be able to go to bed without a hot water bottle.

Last month when I was sitting by my window a sparrow hawk landed, stared at me for a few seconds and then, since I didn't move presumed I was nothing more than part of the furniture and proceeded to eat the bird it had killed for its lunch, plucking it very delicately first before eating the whole thing. I saw the little bird's feet disappearing and felt a sudden pang but then birds are all sparrow hawks eat, I could hardly direct it to Sainsburys.

Pheasants toddle about the fields, rabbits appear in the sundown light, partridges play the same game as children, trying to get themselves run down on the roads and curlews appear crying their particularly exquisite cry overhead. Tiny wrens nest nearby,  robins and blue tits come down to feed, the roadsides are purple and yellow and white in July and this year, at least, the sun has beaten down and the light fades at eleven and comes back after three.

Weardale is the land of my ancestors, they have farmed there for centuries, run businesses in the various little villages, married, died and  been buried there and the place where I stay is in the very fields where my mother rode her horse when she was a young girl.

My father met my mother in the Cross Keys at Eastgate, my father rode a motorbike up the dale to see her, trying to knock a minute off his journey each time.  His family had pubs in St John's Chapel and Frosterley, lovely villages. I can remember as a small child being lifted up on to a stool in the Forester's Arms in Frosterley and being handed a shandy across the bar. My Great Aunt Jessie, my grandma's sister, ran the pub there.

What we used to call Old Man's Baccy

I write about the dale all the time because it's my past, my present and hopefully my future as well.  I write at the Dales Centre in Stanhope, I sit in the cafe at Killhope, the old leadmining centre and eat carrot cake,  I walk around the river at Allendale. I drive to Allenheads where my husband and I used to go when we had a motorbike - we would sit by the smoky pub fire and drink whisky when we were young.

These are the wildflowers which were caught up in the roadside grass last week when I walked into Stanhope. They cheer me.
Dandelion clockDaisiesElderflowers looking like lace ( You can make elderflower champagne if your would be elderflower delicate wine goes into a second fermentation ! )
Muck spreading. Ah, the smell of the dales!It has been a good dry summer for the farmers and the fields are full of lovely bales like these they remind me of shredded wheat.

All these things matter to me, even in July.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

THE 500 CLUB - the most exclusive club in town!

I'm kidding.  I make it sound like the Savile, or White's or one of those old gentlemen's clubs in London but it was and is a very good idea. I can't take credit for it, well, not all of it anyway.

 It started in a lovely pub - as a lot of good things do - The Boar's Head at Ripley near Harrogate where I have spent many happy hours. I was having lunch with Leah Fleming and we were discussing the problems that writers have and especially the eternal one of getting down on paper the good ideas, the next chapter or even the first paragraph of the day, so very hard.  It's what Leah calls 'turning up at the page' and on most days I would much rather turn up at almost anything other than a blank page and so would many other writers I know.

Liz Gill in Rome last month, looking happy.

When the writing is going badly I have a very clean house, ironed clothes, even cooking. I have been known to make marmalade, dear God and my marmalade is on the same level as my risotto and is enough to frighten anyone who really likes food.

Leah Fleming, looking writerly and pensive.

So there we were, happy because we were talking about writing instead of doing it, miles away from home and trying to think what would inspire us to write daily and we decided that we would inspire one another and that at the end of each day we would email to say that we had written at least five hundred words.

We decided to invite another close friend, Trisha Ashley to join us. And she did. And it works very well because it's rare when somebody goes away but it means that there are mostly two people still working but of course as writers we try to work every day and we try to get in touch every day.  We hold one another up so nobody feels like Atlas, holding the blasted world up alone. No wonder the poor bloke got tired. I can't hold up my world without my friends.

 This is Trisha Ashley, looking very professional

I don't remember how many years the 500 Club has been going but in that time we have been out of work, successful, survived various family crises and one another's whims and moods. I'm so proud of us. Who was it that said something like 'writers are like fleas, they give very little to one another'?  It isn't true. My two good writing friends have held me together over these years, taught me not to give up or give in. 

We offer the idea freely to other writers - start your own 500 club or however many words you can write a day without miserying yourself senseless. Email your friends to tell them what you've done.
We turn up at the page as my mate says.  This is what we do. No matter what happens we write. These are our latest books.  Snow Hall comes out in August, published by Severn House and later by Magna Books in big print and audio.
Remembrance Day and Chocolate wishes are already out, published by Avon and we are hard at work producing the next books.