Reading and Writing Poetry in the Pandemic

My garden in late April 2020

I’ve found it hard to read and write fiction during the pandemic, and particularly so during the spring lockdown period. My own deadlines for finishing my second book have slipped and I’ve read not one single novel since March. Instead I’ve sought solace in poetry, and it’s been a joy.

In this blog, I want to tell you about some of the wonderful new poetry I’ve been reading, about some of my own poetry successes this year so far, and about something really lovely that happened this morning.

No theatre, cinema, music, eating out or holidays meant that I was saving a lot of money and I decided to spend it on writing. I did several online courses and bought lots of books – but only poetry books. I did a fantastic course with Wendy Pratt where we wrote poetry or short prose every day in April, and a half day workshop with Kim Moore who also helped me with a manuscript edit for a new poetry pamphlet I hope to publish. I also wrote along with our participants in the online workshops that Clara Challoner Walker and I devised for Awakening The Writer Within. The third and fourth of these are to come on 26th September and 7th November and booking is still open here.

Of all the poetry I’ve read over the past six months three books stand out. Little Kings, Peter Kahn’s witty and wide-ranging stories from the many corners or his heritage and experience, poems which vary in setting, tone and form but which always let you in to share the ride.

The second is Nina Mingya Powles’ Magnolia, a beautiful travelogue across space and time which plays vividly and delicately with language and form, takes us through steaming heat and pouring rain and feeds us with the most mouth-watering edible descriptions. Wonderfully produced both Magnolia and Little Kings came in my subscription from Nine Arches Press.

John McCullough, a generous poet and person, won the Hawthornden Prize for Reckless Paper Birds. It’s as vivid and startling as the birds he posts on his social media pages, but he manages to be both exotic and accessible which is the strength of this collection, I think.

Writers are always told to read, read, read. And it’s true, the more you read, the more you understand of the craft of writing. It has helped my poetry this year to read more and with it I have gained in confidence, sent out more work, and had more published. So far my best success is to be awarded second prize in the Yeovil Poetry Prize which was announced last week. My poem was one of a number I wrote in the early weeks of lockdown, when I was rediscovering our garden. Here it is:

And to top it all, this morning I turned on Twitter after a summer break and found my suggestion of The Moth Signal by Thomas Hardy had been chosen and read by Samuel West as part of his #PandemicPoems series.

Hardy was one of the Ten Twentieth Century Poets that I was taught at school in the early 1970s, and that collection is one I have returned to again recently, finding a lot of comfort in familiar words. It made me realise how important it is to look both back and forwards, to value the old and celebrate the new. It’s not one or the other in times like these, it’s both.

Looking Back On Lockdown

I started 2020 full of optimism and good intention. I wrote blogs in January and February and sent out newsletters, hoping that this would be a year where I kept in touch more with readers. But the world was changing, and in March the UK became a different place.

My birthday is in early March and I had gone with my family to spend a few days on the beautiful Northumberland coast. That weekend the first deaths from Covid-19 were recorded in the UK. On the 13th March I met a friend for lunch, the last time I did so, and only now is that possibility returning. Our daughter called in that evening after work, and didn’t visit again until May when we could socially distance in the garden. We are just having the odd couple of friends round now, but we won’t be returning to foreign travel, restaurants, pubs or cinema for the foreseeable future, even if it is allowed.

The change to internet deliveries and local specialist shopping is a permanent one, I think, and as I look back over the spring and early summer, Lockdown has left our family with a lot of positives as well as some sacrifices. We have a lovely walled garden which is unusual close to the centre of York, and we have turned some of it over to growing potatoes, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries and herbs. We bought a beehive and bees were delivered at the end of April, and after half the hive split off and were recaptured we now have two hives! The garden is full of perennials and wildflowers, different varieties of bees, butterflies, insects and birds. In the silent early days of Lockdown the song of the blackbirds and robins was a real treat, as was the glorious April and May weather.

What have you been doing in Lockdown – what will you keep and what will you be glad to see the back of?

There has been much talk about the pandemic being our generation’s challenge equivalent to wartime, with comparisons to the numbers of people killed in the Blitz. Having written in The Peacemaker about that tense time as war was looming, we have certainly had to adjust to widespread fear, difficulties getting food and strains on public services, but our lives now seem much more complex and the current challenge is navigating a return to normal whilst the threat of coronavirus still lurks in our midst.

Reader’s Block/Writer’s Block

Some people have found the space of lockdown ideal for reading and writing. Others haven’t had any space as they tried to juggle home schooling or community service with work or caring responsibilities. Some of us have been stuck, probably because our heads were filled for a time with daily briefings and the appalling rise in cases of Covid-19, and tragically, deaths.

I have found it hard to work on my second book, Does She Love Us? so in March, April and May concentrated on sending it out to agents and publishers. In April, which was NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) I did a month long course with a daily writing prompt and had some mentoring support from a well known poet who helped me put a new poetry pamphlet together. I started work on a new novel about a woman who meets a homeless man and realises he is the person she almost married 30 years before – it’s called Whatever Happened to Oliver Cartwright? and I’m quite excited about it.

In June I got some editorial advice about Does She Love Us? which has re-energised me to get stuck into refocusing the novel to make it as good as I believe it can be. I’m also reading more – mostly poetry – having struggled to read anything but news for weeks, so I’m hopeful that my new normal will mean more words either written or read. This blog is a start!

A Virtual World

Events to promote The Peacemaker were cancelled in March, but I had the pleasure of presenting to 80 people via Zoom as part of the #StayAtHomeFestival. I am missing meeting book groups, particularly, and would be delighted to do them via Zoom if any of your groups have transferred to that platform. Just get in touch.

On my courses and events page you’ll see how Awakening The Writer Within has been affected by Covid-19. It is sad not to be with people, but wonderful to be able to reach so many more – do join us if you would like some inspiration to help you write – it works for me!

To whet your appetite, here’s a little taster adapted from our workshop on the 4th July.

Shopping Day:

It’s 2030, shops are still operating but are completely contactless and transactions are done by face recognition. You go to buy something in your favourite store, but the system doesn’t recognise you. You don’t seem to exist.

Write a piece of flash fiction (under 500 words), a poem or short drama in response to this prompt.

Very best wishes to you all

Janet

It's Never Too Late…To Start Writing

Happy New Year! My resolution for 2020 is to connect more with readers and this is my first of what I hope will be monthly communications this year. For me, 2019 was a momentous year, having my first book published at the age of 63 was a great personal achievement – it really is never too late.

I’ve had a fantastic time meeting readers and other writers at literary festivals, conferences and events in 2019 and have particularly enjoyed talking to small reading groups. I think it is my favourite thing to do, so if you would like me to talk to your group about any aspect of my book or the writing process, please do ask. This photograph is of my daughter’s yoga group’s book club!

In 2020 I’m already looking forward to being at York Literature Festival again, this time in a collaborative presentation called Family History: Fact or Fiction with my fellow writers Jane Austin and Yvie Holder. We will be at Explore York Library at 2pm on Monday 23rd March. Tickets are £3-£5 from Explore York.

The Peacemaker

Set in 1938 The Peacemaker tells the moving story of young woman’s struggle to make peace with her father on the eve of the Second World War. If you haven’t read it yet, here’s a short extract to whet your appetite…

Violet would like to go back to Thorndale, her memories of it were vague. She remembered it lush and green in summer and white with thick snow in winter. But always with the sun shining in an intensely blue sky. She remembered the row of cottages on each side of the lane which wound up towards the mine. All the men worked there, her father among them. She remembered a tiny house filled with children who came to see her mother. Peggy read from the Mother Goose, while the children dipped sticks of rhubarb into little bowls of sugar set between them. Violet remembered her sitting with her own children in the back field, showing them how to pierce daisy stalks with a fingernail and thread a chain. She remembered how Peggy let them stay up on a cloudless night to look at the stars and showed them how to look for bears in the sky. She was a mother who always heard the birds singing. But Violet also remembered the rain on the window, the howl of the wind down the chimney when the fire would blow out, and her mother weeping when her little brother died. She remembered a dark cupboard where she would hide with Daisy and Frank, waiting for Pop to stop ranting.

The Peacemaker is published by John Hunt Publishing. If you don’t have a copy, you can order it from any major or independent bookshop or direct from Amazon or other online retailer. If you have read my book, and you liked it, please leave a review on Amazon or on Goodreads, it really does help.

Does She Love Us?

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I am also delighted to say that the start of 2020 marks the completion of the final draft of my second novel Does She Love Us? in which a young woman’s buried childhood memories are triggered by the death of her mother. This character-driven novel has the quality of memoir and draws on my own experience as a child living in a mining village in South Yorkshire in the early 1960s. As the world goes through dramatic changes, Does She Love Us? focuses on the drama of everyday lives. It explores the nature of love and the experience of women through the distinctive voices of a quiet but perceptive child and her romantic, emotional mother. Please stay in touch via FB, Twitter or Instagram or my website for updates.

Awakening The Writer Within Retreats and Workshops

If you are interested in writing, or need some practice, do think of coming on one of our Awakening The Writer Within retreats or workshops. Details are on the events page of the website. In the meantime, here’s a writing tip to help your creative thoughts flow.

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You Wear It Well – A Writing Exercise

In The Peacemaker, Violet is a young woman obsessed by clothes. I love writing about what people are wearing as I think it’s a great way to convey character. Use your own clothes to think about how they convey aspects of your own character and use your observations to write a poem or short piece of prose.

Make some notes about significant pieces of clothing:

Try to think about the first piece of clothing you remember wearing – were you playing outside with your friends, had you been taken to buy a new outfit for a holiday or party, were your pyjamas your first clothing memory?

What were your teenage faux pas when it came to clothing – flares or drainpipes? Punk or Pinstripes? Baggy jumpers or crop tops? Whatever your era, which piece of clothing represents the biggest fashion mistake that you loved anyway?

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What’s in your wardrobe now? If your pipes burst this winter, what is the first piece of clothing you would rescue, and which would you happily see rot? Why?

Now look at your notes and let them tell a story. You might find a compelling story in one particular memory, or a thread that winds through your life. If you’d like to share any of your writing, do send it to me, and if you’re happy to see it published online do let me know, it would be a pleasure to feature your writing.

Please let me know if you’ve enjoyed reading this blog. I hope to be back with another in February.

All the best for a brilliant 2020!

Janet

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

As the year draws to a close, I hope you’re all taking time to reflect on the past year, and to count your blessings, however modest or abundant they may be. For me 2019 has been an eventful and memorable year, seeing the publication of The Peacemaker and having the opportunity to share it with readers. In March I was grateful for the launch to be supported by the York Literature Festival and friends and new readers joined me at the Friends’ Meeting House at Friargate. We talked about whether we ever learn from history, and considered how the experience of Violet and Ellis Lowther in anticipating a second world war in 1938 had reverberations for those of us saddened by the prospect of the UK withdrawal from the European Union. I hope after the conflict generated by the election last week , we can indeed hold on not only to those ties that bind us as a nation, but also internationally. It seems so important now to work together to build peace and prosperity throughout the world and to do it with respect and love for our planet, because if we can’t protect it, it certainly won’t sustain us.

As Violet and Ellis found a way to make their peace at the end of my book, so I hope we can all focus on peace in our communities as we approach Christmas. Many people try to do something which makes a contribution to our society, often as an antidote to the ‘getting and spending’ which consumes us at Christmas. That might mean sharing time and energy with others who are sick, or lonely or facing hardship so that over the next couple of weeks people are warm, fed and comfortable. I know people who are involved with food banks, homeless shelters and refugee camps, and am grateful to all of them for giving so much. My wish though, is that we didn’t need any of these facilities, and I struggle not to be angry when I wonder why in a rich country like ours anybody should be hungry or without a roof over their heads. When I wrote in The Peacemaker about the poverty experienced by people like my relatives who spent time in the workhouse or accepted charity to help them survive, I knew that my life had been made so much better because of what had been put in place after the Second World War – the NHS and the Welfare State, good education and a programme of social housing. Without these investments in our communities, we do not thrive and the whole country suffers.

We know that people from poor backgrounds in general experience worse outcomes in terms of education and health. They are also more likely to be involved in crime, or rather to find themselves in prison. This year I have joined the Quaker Meeting at a high security prison and every fortnight spend an hour with men who are serving long sentences. Not all of them are from poor backgrounds, but many are. They value the silence we offer in our form of worship and the conversation we engage in over tea and biscuits. Last week I also attended the Carol Service which brought together prisoners, staff and volunteers to sing carols and songs which most of us knew off by heart. It brought back some of our best memories, from home and school, and even for those whose experience of both might have been difficult, Christmas is often the highlight in our childhood year. As well as carols we sang those songs which have become standards, like ‘Let It Snow’ my favourite ‘Winter Wonderland’ and the song made famous by Judy Garland in Meet Me In St.Louis – ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’

Faithful Friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once more.

Thank you to those of you who have supported me in promoting The Peacemaker this year, whether at events, book groups or on social media. I am so grateful to those readers who have given me such lovely feedback, it is wonderful to hear, please spread the word!

I wish you a wonderful festive season and a very happy new year.

Inherited Health: The Patterns in Families

A young woman working at the CEAG Factory in Barnsley, 1938

“...she kept her eyes on the rack in front of her, filled with spikes and live filaments on which she tested each bulb. The good ones she put in their individual hole in the tray on her left, the duds in a basket by her right knee. It was clean work, the factory was quiet enough to hear the wireless, and it paid better than the Tin Can Works.

The opening scene in my novel The Peacemaker is based on this still from a short film which I found in the Yorkshire Film Archive. It is a glass factory – the CEAG Factory in Barnsley, South Yorkshire – famous for making miners’ lamps and light bulbs. My book is fiction, but based on fact. The main character, Violet Lowther, is based on my mother aged 18. She never worked at CEAG, but she worked in other factories and I grew up knowing people who worked there.

Our lives are made up of stories, and they blend fact and fiction. Just before I was 18, things changed for me in a way which has affected the whole of my life – I had my first experience of depression. One summer day I walked to school as usual, but I felt very sad. I sat in the sixth form common room feeling as if I were in some kind of bubble, set apart from everybody else. And then somebody spoke to me. I couldn’t answer; I burst into tears and ran off to hide in the cloakroom.

In the month that I needed to recover enough to go back to school, my mother cared for me in a state of bewilderment – at a loss to understand why I had gone from being a happy teenager to a distraught young woman. She seemed puzzled but she never criticized me or tried to get me to shake off my mood. She took me seriously, got me treated by a doctor and with her help I came through that episode.

Most people who know me think of me as positive, an extrovert. I laugh a lot and generally come across as a jolly type. But I have been treated for depression about twelve times in my life, always with medication, occasionally with counselling. The story I present to the world is a happy one, but I sometimes mask a deep sadness inside.

I have seen this pattern occur in my family, and in researching deceased relatives as background to The Peacemaker, I could see that many of us have shared an experience of mental ill health which we have managed in different ways, sometimes by medicating ourselves, often with alcohol.

What is difficult to see is cause and effect. Is our experience of mental health an inherited trait? Or are we responding to events in our lives which destabilize us? Perhaps both. The concurrence of trauma and economic or social distress with mental ill health is very strong, but not everybody who experiences physical pain, poverty or discrimination reacts the same way. Sometimes my depression has coincided with difficult life events – the death of my parents, the post-natal depression after the birth of one of my children – but at other times it has seemed to come from nowhere. Sometimes I have dealt with difficulty by facing it head on and pushing through, at other times by needing to retreat for a while. There is no right or wrong. I might catch a cold or I might not, I might have a heart attack or I might not. There are a lot of variables, physical and environmental.

We continue to ask: see mental health like physical health – it is all health. We can help ourselves to be healthy, but sometimes we will become ill, no matter what we do, whoever we are. If we live happy, prosperous peaceful lives, our health will be generally better. As I saw from the generations of my own family who experienced poverty and war decade upon decade, from one century to another, their health suffered both in body and mind.

We know we inherit predispositions to physical ill health, and we may to mental ill health. We also know how important our environmental, economic and social circumstances are in keeping us healthy. In Mental Health Awareness Week, on World Mental Health Day, let’s all watch out for each other.

100 Years of Social Housing: Contemporary Issues Reflected in Historical Fiction

‘She was close now. The estate of miners’ cottages sat in a clearing in the woods. Chestnut Avenue, Beechwood Road, Elm Avenue, Oakwood Close. Paths twisted through dark tree canopies where she and her sister had played as children. It felt like Thorndale, and so different. When they came here to Barnsfield they had a new house with two big bedrooms and a small room for Frank. The toilet had a bath in it (you must call it the bathroom, Violet). There was a parlour room at the front, clean and quiet where Ma could rest, away from the smell of cooking, and the fuss of Pop having a wash after work: he had never lost the habit of washing at the sink.’

This passage from The Peacemaker is a fictionalised rendering of my memories of my grandparents house in Basil Avenue, Armthorpe near Doncaster which they were allocated when my grandfather got at job at Markham Main pit in 1927. I visited the house until 1963 when my grandfather died, and it is reused as a setting in my new work-in-progress ‘How Could I Dance?’ a sequel with a very different flavour. The picture below is a similar type of house from that period.

This year marks 100 years since the Addison Act which led to the building of social housing between the wars, and which, together with workers’ housing provided by the National Coal Board and other large employers, helped people find work and raise their families. For subsequent generations though, successive governments have failed to invest in sufficient social housing to meet needs and our obsession with owning property has distorted the housing market. I worked in housing all my career from 1979 to 2018, and even now can’t let go of trying to address how important it is as a social issue, even in my fiction.

Finding Our Way to Peaceful Co-existence

Commemorating D-Day reminds us what former generations went through to fight hatred and oppression. We need to find our way to peaceful co-existence so that we can care for one another and our beautiful planet. War has a devastating effect on those that fight and those that wait for them to come home, if they do. I wrote The Peacemaker to show how ordinary people’s tragedies play out in a global context.

Writing About Contemporary Issues in Historical Fiction: Mental Health

When I started writing The Peacemaker I thought of it as the story of a mother and daughter whose lives would take a parallel course as the Second World War followed the First. I based the characters on my mother and grandmother but created a fictional story to deal with contemporary issues, primarily sexual assault and victim blaming. I expected the character based on my grandfather to play the role of a miserable, drunken and abusive man at war with his daughter.

However, as I researched the life of my grandfather, including the circumstances of his birth and his First World War record, I found events which led me to believe that his drinking and his temper, his surly character and low mood might be attributable to mental health problems, including what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

As a young child (my grandfather died when I was just seven), I used to visit him with my mother and I would sit on his lap or play at his feet with a tin of three medals – a star, and what looked to me like a gold and silver coins – all dangling from rainbow ribbons. If he had talked about the war, I would have been too young to remember, but my mother never mentioned it, so I assume that he didn’t speak much about it to her. Anything he had said would certainly have been passed on, good or bad, as there was little my mother left unspoken.

When I researched his history as background for my character Ellis Lowther, I found that my grandfather had survived most of the major battles of the Great War, and had been back and forth between France and the North York Moors for almost the whole four years. I cannot imagine that he would not, like most returning soldiers, have been completely traumatized by his experience. It is possible that he had PTSD. Certainly I feel now that his drinking was exacerbated by his trauma and, like other members of my family after him, he probably used alcohol to deal with difficulties in his life including mental health problems. Drugs and alcohol are severe risks for people with poor mental health, and in turn can lead to psychoses and long term mental health conditions.

But deeper research into my grandfather’s life led me to consider how his birth and childhood has contributed to his experience of mental anguish and trauma. I discovered that his father, Frederick Lythe, had died as a result of a mining accident when Enos was just a year old, leaving a widow and six children. Most of my family come from very poor backgrounds, but there must have been terrible poverty experienced by Fred’s widow Jane with so many mouths to feed. I don’t know how she coped, but in my book I imagine her struggling around the turn of the 20th century when the Victorian workhouses still offered the only safety net for the desperately poor. I know that previous generations of my grandfather’s family had been in the workhouse, and although I have no evidence that Enos experienced such a place for himself, he certainly transmitted his fear of the workhouse to his daughters.

I have had experience of depression since I was a teenager, and although I have managed it reasonably well with medication, I know how difficult it is to acknowledge publicly. For men from a working class background I think it is particularly hard, and in recognizing that my grandfather probably drank as a way of dealing with his own problems, I came to understand him more, to care about him, and hopefully in writing sympathetically about him, to restore his reputation.

There are several great organisations supporting people with mental health problems, the one I know best is Mind.

Does Nothing Ever Change For Women?

March is Women in History Month, and today, the 8th of March, is International Women’s Day.

In my novel The Peacemaker, I explore the experiences of two women whose lives take a similar course between the First and Second World Wars. The Peacemaker is historical fiction reflecting contemporary themes, and when I was writing the book, my daughter was volunteering at a rape and sexual abuse service in Liverpool. At the time, the media was full of stories of women being raped and then victimised for being drunk or provocatively dressed. I used this theme to mirror the experiences of Peggy and Violet Lowther, a mother and daughter used by men they barely knew, when they were at their most vulnerable. I drew on my own experiences as a young woman, taught well by my mother to keep myself safe from unwanted sexual pressure on a night out in town. I passed all I knew on to my daughter.

As mothers we hand on our experiences to our daughters, but why does nothing ever change for women? In the Guardian this week, a report on the falling rate of prosecutions for rape was depressing. Hitting a five year low, the rate of prosecutions last year fell to 37% from 62% five years previously. The Home Office is sufficiently concerned to conduct a review, and there are suggestions that part of the problem is the anticipation and fear of false accusation. The consequences for young men falsely accused of rape are of serious concern, but the continuing impact on many more women left unheard and abandoned by the justice system is dire. We must get this balance right.

In The Peacemaker I try to tell a human story about how women are affected by the consequences of rape. I do not paint all men badly, in fact, I show how men can provide the social and economic support that women certainly needed in the past, and may still need today. But what women need most of all from all men is respect as human beings. International Women’s Day and Women in History Month are intended as celebrations of women’s achievements, but they also highlight the continuing need for women and men to demand a fairer society where we support and care for one another rather than perpetrate abuse.

The Peacemaker is published on the 29th March by Top Hat Books and is available to pre-order now.