Monday, September 30, 2013

Postcard from Cardiff

Unexpected highlight of my trip to Cardiff: the wall which protects Bute Park from the traffic-clogged Cowbridge Road. Perched on the coping stones are delightful animal sculptures some with glass eyes making them seem so alive I imagined them poised on the point of escape into the city centre. I may start a campaign for all walls everywhere to be fitted with these.

The actual purpose of the trip also mixed the imaginary and real worlds - I went to see a painting which featured in Margaret Forster's book 'Keeping the World Away'. The book is part fictionalised biography of the artist Gwen John and part story of other women who've encountered one of her paintings. It's the one on the right below and is called 'Corner of the Artist's Room'. You can see she used the corner as backdrop for other paintings, there are even several versions of the 'Corner' itself and a print of it hangs in my own house. Cardiff Museum and Art Gallery are lucky enough to own an original, well worth driving 100 miles to see. I love the picture because the dormer window is similar to that in my 'book nook', although my view is of south Birmingham tree tops rather than Parisian roofs.

Another unexpected delight in the Cardiff area is Dyffryn Gardens. You know how much I enjoy sitting in a garden and how much I dislike actual gardening. Popping into each differently themed garden 'room' at Dyffryn was fascinating and attempting to select a favourite impossible. What's that? You're not interested in the plants, you want to know about the cafe? Come on, it's National Trust, of course they do good cake!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Postcard from the Library

Queues have formed outside the new Library of Birmingham every day since it opened last Tuesday. Millions of photographs have been taken by thousands of visitors. And, this weekend, the city centre buzzed with celebrations to welcome the new building. Which is why I've posted you a picture of a singer from the brilliant Birmingham Opera Company presenting Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death in the library amphitheatre, rather than a shot of the building. Other photographers have taken better pictures than me. Google it if you haven't seen it. It's the kind of architecture you'll have an opinion on.

The folk at the Library were kind enough to let me have a go on their blog in which I expressed how keen I was to get inside and start working there again. From my first visit, I'm impressed. I like the layout of space, the light, the gardens, the views. I enjoyed rounding a shelf to discover an intriguing artwork. I loved seeing Brummies expressing their surprise at how much information and entertainment was freely available to them. But I can't work there, not yet.

A pedestrian thoroughfare passed below the old Central Library. Everyone walked under it on their way somewhere else; very few went inside. The fanfare around the new Library means the entire city want to see inside so, for now, it's a destination as much as a library. When I visited there were queues at almost every librarian's desk. I bet they've never been so popular and it's great to see people interested in books of all kinds. Fortunately I'm at the stage of plotting ideas for my next novel so people watching counts as research. Maybe the crowds will have dispersed by the time I want to sit down and write. I've spotted the window-facing desk I fancy and I don't need the library to be silent in order to work there. I'd just prefer not to queue!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Postcard from home

I took my holidays early this year so I'm spending the summer in Birmingham working, writing and helping to organise the PowWow LitFest. Given that we've actually had some sunny weather this summer, I'm not feeling sorry for myself. After all, Birmingham does look like a tourist destination sometimes.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Postcard from the retreat

My 'Christmas card list' tour continued with a trip to the south west recently. Friends in Devon and Dorset were 'treated' to my company while I abused their hospitality and called it a holiday. A working holiday though. In between weekend stays with friends, I spent the week at a writing retreat and made good progress on my current novel.

You may think that all I'd need to write a novel is an idea (check), a laptop (check), and some time (check). I find the discipline of devoting time to the job a good incentive to get on with it though. At Retreats for You almost all distractions are removed. Delicious food is served without need for shopping or cooking, drinks and snacks are freely available and convivial company is restricted to certain times. Meaning: all other hours can be devoted solely to writing. So I did. Except. It is important to exercise the body as well as the mind. The picture shows the River Torridge which was down a steep enough hill from my writing desk to class as strenuous and that dog needed to be taken for its swim.

Just to reassure you I was working, here's my Devon desk. I miss it already.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Postcard from the stone

I'm currently revising my latest novel, which means paying attention to details such as settings.The plot is in place, the characters are full of life - so now I need to colour in the scenery to allow readers to build a full picture of events in their mind. I tend to skip over that stage in my first drafts.

It should be easy. After all, I set my books in the city I live in. I regularly walk through it. In theory I know what it looks like and only have to translate that into words on the page. But although I think I'm observant it turns out I haven't been looking quite closely enough.

I went on a walking tour recently themed around the sculpture of William Bloye. His work enhances a lot of Birmingham's public and private buildings and he was Professor of Sculpture at the city's art school, which ties in nicely with some events in my book. Once I started looking at his work, I remembered other things I've seen in a similar vein. Connections were made, ideas generated, stories began to develop. I bet thousands of people walk past the plaque in the photo above every day without looking properly. They've probably got other things on their minds; it is near the entrance to a police station.

The tour was a good reminder to keep my eyes open and a notebook to hand. And it drew my attention to the story of a dog who accompanied his stone mason owner to work every day and is now immortalised in the fabric of the city. Bet not many Brummies have noticed, despite it being in a prime central location. I like how some of the city's stories are marked in its stones. Now I just have to tell a few of them.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Postcard from Bournville

Yesterday I took a spring sunshine stroll down the road to Bournville - home of Cadbury's and a cafe serving brownies made with the famous local product (other cakes were also available: including lemon curd and rhubarb for those of a less chocoholic disposition). Lawnmowers hummed, daffodils swayed in the breeze across the Green, coaches rolled into Cadbury World and I remembered why I couldn't actually live there. It's a lovely place to visit, but all feels staged. I guess I prefer my suburbs chaotically organic rather than pleasantly planned.

Still, I appreciated the afternoon out. Recent, hectic, days have included speaking at two events about Park Life, going to work and attending a wedding. Oh, and a theatre trip, a second visit to Bletchley Park, choir, new carpet, writing the new novel and time with family and friends. All good, interesting, entertaining things but I feel it's always important to pause and make time for tea. And also important to try local specialities. I know Bournville chocolate is readily available throughout the UK, but look: I was practically sitting in the factory. It would have been rude not to!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Postcard from Granada

Apologies for the dearth of recent posts - I became so bored of seeing snow lying everywhere I couldn't bring myself to photograph it. So I flew to southern Spain - Granada in Andalusia - in hope of better weather. Not entirely successfully. It seems the unseasonable temperatures have hit all Europe which is disappointing.

What was not disappointing was the Alhambra itself. My photo doesn't do it justice. Imagine how that peachy stone would glow under sunlight, how a clear blue sky would show it off. Never mind - while the plain stone walls loom over the town, the interior is something else entirely. Walls half tiled in spice shades and half decorated with detailed arabesque plaster work, marble floored courtyards inset with fountains, carved wooden doors and arched windows looking out to distant mountains (the only place I was happy to see snow). Incredibly exotic.

Hiking up steep hills in chilly drizzle isn't top of my holiday wishlist but when there's a sight like that at the top and a warm bath at the hammam followed by cerveza and tapas waiting at the bottom, that'll do for me thanks!