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1) Swimming not drowning: there will be (many) false starts

I associate intending to be a writer with learning to swim. I was ten, in my last year of primary school, when I told Mr. Williams, my very Welsh head teacher, that I meant to be a writer. I said it with great certainty, and he listened in all seriousness. He was someone I trusted implicitly. He was also the person who taught me to swim, and to me, decades later, the way he did it still seems a little miracle.

There were several non-swimmers in the senior class and one day Mr. Williams decided to remedy this life-threatening deficiency. Once a week for several weeks he drove us to the swimming pool in the school minibus. He made no concession to the occasion and still wore his smart grey headmasterly suit. Looking back, he probably did this on purpose. It showed he meant business and we were not there to play. The suit’s material had a soft metallic sheen and probably went by the name of Tricel. It somehow had a part to play.

After a couple of trips to the pool I had fully grasped the mechanics of swimming, but was unwilling to give up my rubber ring. Mr. Williams, however, was determined. He told me to walk twenty paces into the pool’s shallow end. He told me to take off the rubber ring. Then standing at the pool’s edge, he squatted down so low that his trousers strained across his knees and shone like silver. His eyes levelled with mine as I stood there – in the water – shivering – without my protecting ring. He told me to swim but I kept standing and staring at his knees, feeling silly and helpless. Then suddenly out flew his arms in a welcoming embrace. ‘Come on,’ he cried. ‘Swim to me. YOU.CAN.DO.IT.’ And such was his look of unconditional expectation that I took to the water and swam.

And the point of this story? Becoming a writer/maker/artist means learning to  grow and nurture your inner Mr. Williams. Along the creative path there may be few external expressions of encouragement. But without the deep-down core of self-belief you will not have the resilience to stay the course, bear the disappointments, handle the rejection slips, or to toil and toil alone for the days, months and years it will take to learn your craft. All of which is not to discourage, but to say that you really have to want to do this.

2) Having formed your intention, do NOT wait for inspiration to strike: you can wait till the crack of doom

Of course learning to swim is not the same as being a good swimmer who can swim fifty lengths with ease and feel quite at home in the water. To become a skilled artisan of any kind, there is the long haul of apprenticeship, probably one that will never end. I, though, and like many would-be writers, went for years, carrying in my head the apparently foregone conclusion that one day inspiration would strike and I would begin to write my own stories instead of reading other people’s.

It rarely, if ever happens this way. Besides which, inspiration is only the starting point, the ‘ah-ha’ moment when your attention fixes on an overheard conversation, or collides with a character on a bus, or gets hooked on some bizarre news event that starts you asking the kind of questions that kick off the story-making process. Mostly, though, you need to seek it out. Because the fact is, even if you are not actually writing, you must be doing the internal work, mentally exploring the stories that you might one day tell, gathering material, keeping watch, feeding that tiny flame of an inkling that says ‘I do have a story to tell’. ‘I do have something important to say.’

Inspiration, then, does not arrive ‘out of blue’ or occur in a vacuum; it needs one, two or several things to rub together. You could say it’s a bit like the slow-going process of rubbing dry sticks together, and trialling likely bits of kindling to get a fire started. In that initial whoosh of a blaze taking hold all is very exciting, but it is only the start. Now the hard work really begins – keeping the fire going, finding suitable material that will burn well – fast or slowly or long enough to cook your dinner. In other words, flash-in-the-pan, quick-fire notions (inspiration) are the easy part. Thereafter comes the sourcing of materials, planning, construction and general project management. You can only truly learn how to do this by doing it. So how to begin?

3) Do not fall into the trap of thinking that reading other writers will drown out your own small voice before you even start: read, read, read…

As an adult, my writing work was largely academic: dissertations, reports, preparing educational materials in various museums. Somewhere along the line I stopped reading fiction; I feared that to do so would distract me from finding my own inspiration, my own voice, my own stories. I have met other beginner writers who said they did the same thing, and especially when it came to books that they thought might ‘compete’ with their own ideas. Yet not to read widely is another form of writer’s self-sabotage. Writers need to read anything and everything they can, and across all genres, and they need to read with attention and discernment. For instance, you can learn a huge amount about story construction by studying an infant’s picture book that contains only around 30 words (Pat Hutchins Rosie’s Walk).

In fact some of the best-crafted storytelling on the planet is for young people – and here I’m thinking of writers such as Richard Peck, Sharon Creech, Robert Cormier, Kate di Camillo, Geraldine McCaughrean, Philip Pullman, Jennifer Donnelly, David Almond. Reading good books with all senses attuned is akin to having mental conversations with other writers; far from swamping your own style/voice/subject matter, listening carefully to what they say and how they say it can help release your very own form of creative expression. This is not about copying ; it is about finding your own truthful response to other writers’ work. Writing a book or a story or a poem is not a contest with anyone else. It is your book, story, poem. Only you can write it. And if in doubt, think ‘Mr. Williams’. At some point you have to get in there and swim.

But of course, having joined the fray, then comes the endurance testing and training, the honing of skills, and goal setting.

4) Being a good writer is not the same as being a good storyteller

Some people are natural storytellers, and especially so when they come from families or cultures where oral storytelling is still practised. Even so, and no matter how you treat them later, it helps to learn the storytelling basics: the beginnings, middles and ends of a story, their possibilities, the ways to build tension and interest, how to manage revelation, crisis and resolution, what it takes to create believable worlds (real-life or science fiction), to breathe life into characters who will then ‘speak’ to readers, to make effective and affective use of language.

All these skills can be learned to some extent by much well-directed reading, including studying a few how-to-write books on the way. But taking out a subscription to a good creative writing magazine or attending a class are the more interactive and less lonely options. The disciplines of entering magazine contests or doing class exercises – reading others’ work with interest rather than envy, writing to deadlines, word counts and prescribed themes are all worth cultivating. They all build the kind of writing muscles you need to best deliver ‘the what’ of the creative process – the  story.

5) Writing fiction does not mean ‘making things up’; it is all about building convincing worlds.

This is something that is easily misunderstood, and it took me some time to grasp explicitly. Fiction reveals imagined worlds and their inhabitants in ways that are truthful in. Integrity and authenticity are key objectives. The setting may be a medieval Russian monastery, a London secondary school, or a planet with two suns, but it must ring true for the reader. Its special characteristics will add depth and texture to the narrative, but above all, they will be dynamic – informing, shaping, adding drama to the characters’ behaviour/situation/dilemmas. This requires considerable research and construction work by the writer, but with the caveat that, at the end of the process, only the writer ever needs to know all this stuff. The reader wants only the most telling details, the ones that, like literary hyperlinks, will take them straight into that special place and engage them wholeheartedly with the characters’ lives. (A fine example of this is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall where she uses historical, social and political contexts to reveal the life and times of Thomas Cromwell.)

To achieve this level of ‘reality’ requires the writer to have strong reasons for telling a particular story. As I’ve said, creating a story from start to finish requires drive and stamina. Passion, pain, compassion and anger are great spurs, but their energy needs to be channelled judiciously. (No ranting or heavy-handed moralizing required and the writer’s self should keep well out of the way). The research part of the project may also demand a whole new reading schedule (encyclopaedias, atlases, internet content, telephone directories, newspapers etc) and, where possible, physically immersing yourself in the places where the story is set.

This is all about knowing your territory as an expert guide would know it. Only then can the alchemy begin. Or perhaps shape-shifting is a better analogy. Because this is one of the most important of all the things I have come to learn from the practise of being a writer: the writing must come from the inside out; writers must inhabit their character’s minds, shoes and underpants; whatever it takes to get inside their skin. For me, this usually means starting with the feet rather than the knickers department. When I wrote about a street girl called Jessicah, she was conjured by a ‘feeling’ in the balls of my feet as she tramped in thin-soled shoes through the African highlands. Years later I can still summon that particular sensation and know it is Jessicah, and start seeing the world again through her eyes. All of which is very strange when you think about it, and probably the reasons why most writers keep writing. For the final truth is that even well-published writers struggle to make a living from book sales alone. Writing then, first and foremost and anyway, has to be done for the love of the thing.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

 

Tish Farrell writes short fiction to entice unkeen teen readers to read in the Shades series at Ransom Publishing. She also writes for Heinemann Junior African Writers, Zimbabwe Publishing House and Phoenix Publishers East Africa. Her short story Flight came third in last year’s International Bath Short Story Award.

 

Writerly Reflections

For those of you who read my recent post Valentine’s Day Runaway this is one of the things Team Farrell got up to next; it had a lot to do with smut. And no: it’s not what you think.

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Smallholder farms on the Great Rift Escarpment, Kenya

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For most of the 1990s we were based out in Kenya, where Team Leader Graham, food storage expert and all-round fix-it man, was one of several  British scientists running a crop protection project alongside Kenyan scientists at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL). This work was funded by DFID, Britain’s Department for International Development, which in turn is of course funded by British taxpayers.

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Most of Kenya’s farmers are women. Their efforts feed their families and feed the nation.

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Many of the project’s programmes of work were done on farms, and involved helping farmers to devise their own research methods for controlling the numerous pests that attack their crops both before and after harvest. Since just about every Kenyan, from the President down, is some kind of farmer, or has a farm in the family, this was an important project, and just about everyone was interested in the outcomes. (Next time you are buying French beans or mange tout peas in the supermarket, look where they have come from. Much of this kind of produce is grown under contract on small farms like the ones below.)

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A typical farmstead in the Kenya Highlands north of Nairobi. The volcanic soil is very fertile, but also susceptible to erosion.

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Today Kenya is undergoing a massive hi-tech revolution through the proliferation of cell phone and computer technology, but it still relies on agriculture for survival. When you discover that only 15% of Kenya’s landmass has enough rain or is fertile enough for arable production you may begin to see the scale of the problem for a nation that is only now beginning to industrialize. There are of course the big multinational outfits that grow wheat, coffee, tea, flowers and pineapples, but most of the food that Kenyans eat is grown on thousands of tiny farms, many less than an acre in area.

Escarpment lane

Gathering Napier Grass from roadside plots to feed ‘zero-grazed’ dairy cows. Most farms are so small that cattle are kept in small paddocks and their food is brought to them: yet another daily chore, along with gathering cooking fuel and attending to children and fields.

Kikuyu lane with woman carrying napier grass

Furthermore, most of Kenya’s farmers are women. Providing most of the the country’s food, they are in every sense the backbone of the nation. They stay in their rural homes, tending the crops and bringing up the children while husbands work away to earn extra cash to repair homes, buy fertilizer, educate their children and fund small business enterprises.

These men usually head to the cities where they work as security guards, clerks, hotel staff, house servants and drivers. Most take their annual leave at harvest and planting times so as to be back on their farms to help with the year’s most arduous tasks. So however you look at it, everyone in Kenya works very hard. Certainly in the nineties even most professional Kenyans believed that owning a plot of land to work at weekends was an essential insurance policy in a nation with no social services.

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Most of the milk from smallholder’s cows is sold to provide cash to pay for children’s education and medical bills. While primary education has been free over the last few years, there are still expensive books and uniforms to buy, and secondary education is not free. On this farm the owner is also using any disposable income to bit-by-bit replace his timber farm house with a good stone house.

Kikuyu farmstead 24

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So back in 1998, as part and parcel of protecting Kenya’s agricultural production, Team Leader Graham invited Nosy Writer (me) to accompany him on a fact finding mission around the farms north of Nairobi. We were on a quest to plot the incidence of SMUT, a fungal disease that was affecting Napier Grass, an important fodder crop. Most smallholders kept a small number of dairy cows because the selling of milk provided a valuable supplement to their income, helping to pay for school fees and medical expenses.

Most farms are too small to include pasture and so the cows are ‘zero-grazed’, that is, kept in small paddocks and their fodder (mostly Napier Grass) brought to them. This grass, if well-tended, grows into huge perennial clumps that can be cut at intervals. It can also be usefully grown on vertical banks to consolidate field terraces, or wherever the farmer can find a space, often on roadside verges. However, once smut gets a hold, the plant will gradually weaken and its food value decrease. Not only that, smut spores blow on the wind, and infect other plants. The only remedy is to root up the infected plants and burn them.

Graham and Kungu delighted to find smut on Waiyaki Way

Nothing pleases plant pathologists more than to find a nicely diseased plant. After a morning spent searching for smutted plants out on the farms, Doctors Graham Farrell and Jackson Kung’u are amused to spot a case back in the city. Here it is on a highway verge near the National Agricultural Research Laboratory in Nairobi. Smut lives up to its name and turns the flowering stems a sooty black. The fungus gradually weakens the plant and reduces it in mass and nutritional value.

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My job on the smut quest was to hold the clip-board and the other end of the measuring tape while we sampled farm plots. Our third, and  most essential team member, (in fact he was the real team leader) was Njonjo. He was the one who heroically drove us up and down the hilly Kikuyu lanes that had recently been ravaged by torrential El Nino rains.

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Rift lane after July downpour

As well as being one of NARL’s top drivers, Njonjo was himself a farmer, and so had a vested interest in getting to the bottom of the smut infestation. Since Graham’s Kiswahili was a bit rusty, and many of the older farmers preferred to speak Kikuyu, Njonjo provided them with on-the-spot lectures on what they should do with their smut-infected plants. He also talked our way onto every farm, where we welcomed in with huge courtesy, despite arriving uninvited.

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Njonjo and Margaret the farmer. She was busy making compost when we arrived on her farm.

Kikuyu farmer and sugar cane

This farmer was so grateful to be told about his smutted Napier Grass he presented us with some sugar cane. We also came home with chickens, maize cobs and bags of pears

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One of our tasks on the farm was to sample farmers’ Napier Grass plots to see how far they were infected, and to what extent the affected plants had lost mass. Njonjo organised a team of unemployed lads to help with the sampling.

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Before the cell-phone revolution of recent years, farming information was hard to come by. Here Njonjo delivers his Smut Lecture to an impromptu gathering of smallholders who have spotted our arrival in their district and want to know what we are up to.

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And here are three good reasons why Kenyans work so hard…

Kikuyu schoolboys

education, education, education.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

Ailsa’s travel theme: work for more stories

The family who lived in the Palais de Masena

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Believe me, the family gathering depicted in these two murals has more tales to tell than most. They could be the very depiction of Tolstoy’s famous opening to the tragic novel Anna Karenina: (and I paraphrase) all happy families look alike, but the unhappy ones are unhappy in their own inimitable way. I leave you to decide which sort we have here.

But before the stories, first a little about the murals’ setting. They face one another across the top of the grand staircase in the Palais Masséna in Nice. This imposing house was one of the last of its kind to be built on the Promenade des Anglais, looking

Palais de Masena

out on the sparkling blue Mediterranean.  It was designed by Danish architect Hans-Georg Tersling (1857-1920),  and  finished in 1901. By then Nice had long been a thriving upper class resort, a trend begun in the 1730s when British aristocrats such as Lord and Lady Cavendish first began to gather at Nice and along Côte d’Azur for the winter season. Back then Nice was an ancient fishing town. The Scottish poet, Tobias Smollett describes it in 1764. He went there in hopes that the benign winter climate would help improve his consumption:

“This little town, hardly a mile in circumference, is said to contain twelve thousand inhabitants. The streets are narrow; the houses are built of stone, and the windows in general are fitted with paper instead of glass. This expedient would not answer in a country subject to rain and storms; but here, where there is very little of either, the paper lozenges answer tolerably well. The bourgeois, however, begin to have their houses sashed with glass. Between the town-wall and the sea, the fishermen haul up their boats upon the open beach.”

As time went on the Tsars of Russia and the Romanov family made the South of France their second home, which circumstance, in 1912, prompted Tsar Nicholas II to build the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Nice to serve the Russian nobility. Even Queen Victoria came on holiday to Nice, staying in the magnificent  Excelsior Régina Palace which looks down on the city and the sea from the hill of Cimiez. It was apparently built in response to her requirements for a place to stay that matched her status. And so the hotels and palaces grew up around the old town of Nice to provide for the royal, rich and famous.

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Excelsior Regina Palace built 1895-7; Photo: Nice Archives copyright expired

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Angelo Garino Promenade des Anglais 1922[1]Detail from Promenade des Anglais 1922 by Angelo Garino  (1860-1945)

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Some of these elite visitors and palace owners acquired their riches and nobility by rather questionable means, and this includes the erstwhile owners of the Palais Masséna. It was built for Victor Masséna, 3rd Prince d’Essling, 3rd Duc de Rivoli and the grandson of  André Masséna, son of a Nice shopkeeper who acquired wealth and royalty while serving and plundering in Bonaparte’s army.  More of him later.

The two family murals are dated 1902-3 and include members of the intermarried Masséna, Murat and Ney families. The reason for the elevated positions and princely titles is entirely due to Napoleon Bonaparte and his ambitions of military conquest.  The founders of their ennobled dynasties were three ordinary men from ordinary backgrounds who joined the French army. All three proved to be brilliant and courageous soldiers who ascended rapidly through the ranks to become Marshals of Empire.

Joachim Murat, an innkeeper’s son, married Bonaparte’s youngest sister, Caroline, and for services rendered was made the King of Naples. He ruled between 1808 and 1815. File:Murat2.jpg

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Michel Ney, a public notary and surveyor of mines, gave up being a civil servant and enlisted in the hussars. After great battle victories he became 1st Prince de la Moskowa, 1st Duc d’Elchingen.

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As mentioned above, André Masséna earned the titles 1st Duc de Rivoli and 1st Prince d’Essling.

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But status and wealth are not everything. Nor were they enjoyed for long. Masséna, long suffering from ill-health, died in retirement after being serially dismissed by Napoleon, first for excessive war looting, and then (after reinstatement) for military failures against the British in the Peninsular War. In his last days before his death in 1817, he supported the restoration of King Louis XVIII to the French throne. Doubtless a wise move for his descendants.

In 1815, after the capture and  exile of Napoleon Bonaparte, both Murat and Ney were executed by firing squad for treason. Murat’s two sons went to North America in the 1820s; the elder stayed and became a citizen, but the younger, Napoléon-Lucien-Charles returned to France in 1848 when his title as Prince Murat was recognised by Napoleon III under the Second Empire.

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And so we come back to the descendants of the three brave Marshals on the walls of the Palais Masséna. The more you look at these murals, the more curious they seem. They were painted by the then successful French artist François Flameng (1856–1923). He later went on to paint Great War battle scenes, and document new kinds of families, the close-knit comradeship of companies of men under siege.

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A Machine Gun Company of Chasseurs Alpins in the Barren Winter Landscape of the Vosges, François Flameng, photo Wikimedia Commons.

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I suppose my first question is why would the mural people wish to have themselves depicted in this way? Certainly there is a sense of entitlement and much self-regarding, but at the same time it is also as if they are not quite self-aware. Flameng verges on caricature for most of his subjects.  For surely there are suggestions of secrets, collusion, factions, conspiracy, loss of status within the gilded circle.  There are shared misfortunes and private sorrows; anxiety and repression; no one smiles; the children look utterly constrained. And then there are simply too many people peering round pillars, or only half seen despite their prestigious titles.

The two men on the far left of the second painting look distinctly rascally, their almost-smiles, sardonic, malicious.  They are related, brothers I think; the nearest to the viewer is Napoleon Ney, Prince de la Moskowa; behind him Claude Ney, Duc d’Elchingen. In 1903, the year the murals were completed, the Prince and Princesse de la Moskowa were divorced. La Princesse is the sad woman in the blue gown at the other end of the mural, only partially seen behind the column. Is Flameng intimating her loss of status in relation to the others? She is Eugénie, youngest daughter of Napoleon Bonaparte. She married the Prince in Rome at the Villa Bonaparte in 1898, and with all the Ney family in attendance. The couple had no children.

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Here is Eugenie on her wedding day. The photograph is attributed to Count Guiseppe Primoli.

Eugenie Bonaparte 1898

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Further along the mural from the Ney brothers is Victor Masséna, Prince d’Essling, the builder of the palace. His eldest daughter, Anne, has a proprietorial hold on his shoulder. He will die in 1810 in a Paris nursing home after an operation, and she will marry the Duc d’Albufera. The two faded souls at Victor’s elbow are his long-dead parents, also named Anne and Victor.

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The only calm and truly sympathetic face among the whole gathering is that of Rose Ney d’Elchingen. She leans over the balustrade accompanied by two macaws and an expensive tapestry. Beside her (with the pince nez) is the Princesse Joachim Murat, born Cecile Ney d’Elchingen, probably Rose’s sister. Her husband, Prince Joachim Murat, is across the stairs, lurking between a pillar and a large urn.  Rose, herself, will marry the distinguished Italian politician Duca Guiseppe Lanza di Camastra, and he will die prematurely in 1927 at the age of 31. Before that though, a 1916 newspaper photo will show Rose La Duchesse in full nurse’s gear, apparently assisting the surgeon with the war wounded at Val-de-Grâce military hospital in Paris. She is well-known for her beauty and philanthropy.

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Also in this mural detail is Prince Eugene Murat and the boy Charles Murat. The prince will die, aged 30, in 1906 when he overturns his car  while driving to Karlsbad. The report says he lived in Paris and left three children. It does not mention that he was married to the notorious Violette Ney d’Elchingen, Princesse Eugene Murat, and Rose’s sister. We are about to meet her across the staircase. They could not be less alike, at least in their demeanour.

The family who lived in the Palais de Masena

In fact you can hardly miss her, can you, Madame in the royal blue blouse. She seems to dominate the gathering on both sides of le grand escalier. The hand on hip gesture looks coarse, suggestive more of a nicoise fishwife than a princess. She is also the only one taking an active, indeed aggressive stance. She looks out at us visitors as if we were something unpleasant she has stepped in.

But what did the artist Flameng mean us to understand from this image? And what is going on with sad, submissive girl who leans against the redoubtable Violette? After all, this is not mother and daughter. The girl is Victoire  Masséna, younger daughter of Victor. She is around 14 years old here. In 4 years she will be married to the Marquis de Montesquiou. She will have two sons and at 30 she will be dead. Perhaps she foresees her future. Perhaps when you know that Violette, besides being a mother of three, is also a predatory bisexual, you might think there is something more sinister here. But then maybe one should not jump to conclusions.

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Princess Eugene Murat c.1929; photo Berenice Abbott

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In the decades of her widowhood, after the car-crash death of Eugene, Violette led a very gay life, and in all senses of the word. She was part of the Paris and Harlem Jazz Age scene. She entertained the likes of Stravinsky and Cocteau in her Paris home. She was a friend of the artist Augustus John who sketched her quite pleasingly while she introduced him to novel ways of taking hashish. In his autobiography he says:

“I had already tried smoking this celebrated drug without the slightest result. It was Princess Murat who converted me. She contributed several pots of the substance in the form of a compôte or jam. A teaspoonful was taken at intervals.”

She famously stormed out of a very famous Paris dinner party, held in 1922 for Europe’s artistic elite. The guests of honour included Diaghilev, Stravinsky, James Joyce, and Picasso. But it was the appearance of the reclusive Marcel Proust that evinced Princess Murat’s all too visible disfavour. At the time everyone who was anyone was trying to identify themselves and others in the characters of Proust’s À la Recherche du temps perdu. Violette, who was renowned for meanness had seemingly provided the model for an extremely miserly individual.

She was, in fact, exceedingly generous with the cocaine, or so we discover in Sebastian Faulks’ book The Fatal Englishman, which includes the biography of the English artist, Christopher Wood (1901-30). In it he describes Violette as “an enormous drug-addicted lesbian with a hunger for company.” She goes around with a bag of cocaine and lays out lines for Wood when he is struggling to complete a piece of work. Faulks tells, too, of Wood’s claim that she lost £5 or 6 million in the 1929 Stock Market crash. She ended her days, living in squalor, having overcome an earlier obsession with maintaining cleanliness, and died of barbiturate poisoning at the age of 58. A sad end to a damaged life.

And what was at the heart of this – sibling jealousy perhaps? Does that explain Flameng’s placing of the players in the murals – the beautiful Rose on one side of the stairs, blissfully unaware of her allure, and beloved even by the two family macaws? While opposite, the portly, coarse featured sister tries to outface her, and indeed the whole world that pays court to her much prettier sister. It’s a theory.

Finally, there is a more pleasing story, at least as far as the palace is concerned. Below on the left we see Victor Masséna’s heir, André, the future Prince d’Essling beside his mother, Princesse d’Essling. In 1919, with his father dead nearly ten years, he hands the Palais Masséna to the city of Nice on the understanding that it will be open to the public. Today it is the city’s local history and art museum.

The family who lived in the Palais de Masena

And so what is there left to say about this self-aggrandizing family. With hindsight one could say that in real life, when these murals were painted, the Belle Époque was drawing to its close. Did Flameng already sense this? The world was changing. Soon there would no longer be the annual winter retreat to the Palais Masséna.  Somehow, then, the murals do have a Proustian feel, perhaps a missing story thread from À la Recherche du temps perdu; the last moment of a perfect, and rarified age caught in two wall paintings, and now gawped at by the passing public.

And as for the three Marshals of France whose derring-do started all this social climbing, you  may find them lying quite close to one another in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. There they have long since made their residence – among the great and growing family of the dead.

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Père Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris.Photo: Pierre-Yves Beaudouin / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

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Last but not least, I leave you with glimpses of former winter season glory chez Masséna.

Nice is filled with chandeliers

Palais de Masena, now a museum

© 2014 Tish Farrell

#amwriting #tishfarrellwriter

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Z Boston Harvard 11

Yum Kax (Yoom Kosh) the Mayan Corn God

Peabody Museum, Harvard University

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I may have mentioned once or three times that I write ‘quick-read’ fiction for  young teens who are not too keen on reading. For those of us who cannot imagine ever being without a book, it is often hard to understand why some people struggle to ever pick one up.

 

The thickness can deter some doubtful readers. Pages dense with text also intimidate.  Ransom Publishing  thus produce slim readers with plenty of white space on the page.  More importantly, perhaps, for teen readers, they are now also published in various e-book formats including Amazon Kindle, and e-pub and pdf versions at Hive.

 

The stories in the Shades 2.0 series are aimed at twelve-year-olds with a reading age of 9-10 years. They are around six thousand words in length, i.e. short story sized. But, to create interest and momentum, they are divided into  several chapters  (with cliff hangers), and then spread  unthreateningly over 64 pages.  The aim is to build reading muscles by creating works that are small in scale but big enough in content; mini novels if  you like: do-able and hopefully un-put-downable.

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Shades covers for REPRO Batch 3_Layout 1

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The stories in the series cover many challenging themes and in all genres – from the trials of an apprentice apothecary escaping London during the Black Death of  1665  (Plague  by David Orme) to Jill Atkins’ Cry, Baby which tells what happens when schoolgirl, Charlie, finds she is pregnant. 

 

And where does Yum Kaax come in? Well he features  in my story Stone Robbers, putting in a surprising appearance when Rico, the angry young hero of the tale, stumbles into a robber trench in an ancient Mayan city. But that’s all I’m saying, except to add that the part he plays in the story was  inspired by the real and accidental discovery of a magnificent Mayan mural at San Bartolo, Guatemala back in 2001.

Stone Robbers, then, is both an adventure and a quest.  Rico has a score to settle with an old adversary, Enzo. Then he discovers that antiquities thieves have been looting the ruined city near his home. Between Enzo and the stone robbers, lies yet another conflict: Rico’s fury at his Mayan heritage, this in a Guatemala where Mayan people are still second-class citizens. Suddenly it all seems too much to handle, and then the Corn God puts in an appearance…

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Available on Amazon Kindle and on Amazon in book format.

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Also in the Shades 2.0 Series  Mantrap – a story about elephant poaching set in Zambia.

 

 

For more about Ransom and Shades 2.o series

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See more bloggers’  YYY-stories at Frizz’s YYY-challenge 

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Giles (Victor) Rowles

1896-1915

Ninety nine years and one month ago, my great uncle, Giles Rowles enlisted with the 14th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force in Melbourne. He was an English sailor, born in the Old Red Lion Inn, Hollins Green, near Manchester. He was eighteen years old. By the time he enlisted, both his parents, Charles and Mary Rowles were dead, and for reasons unknown he had changed his name to Victor. When he enlisted he gave his next of kin as Aunt Louisa Rowles of 10, Despenser Gardens, Cardiff. She was his dead father’s widowed sister-in-law.

This photo from his mother’s locket is the only known photograph of Giles. He was the only child of my great grandmother’s second marriage to Manchester Ship Canal pilot, Charles Rowles. There were four older step siblings. He was thirteen when his widowed mother died, and it seems he then went to live with Aunt Louisa in Cardiff. The 1911 census return lists him as a trainee shipping clerk. His older cousin John, who was still living at home, was a shipping agent. The next record I have of him is when he enlists in Melbourne in October 1914.

The National Australian Archives have made all the war records available on line, and it was from these that we have been able to piece together a little of Victor Rowles’ last year on earth. It is noteworthy that he writes his signature on the enlistment form with a confident flourish. It is the clear hand of someone who has been a clerk. But the details are sparse, and all the more disturbing for that. The Medical Officer at Broadmeadows, where initial military training took place, lists the following: he was eighteen years and seven months, 5 feet 5 and a quarter inches , weighed 135 pounds. His complexion was ruddy, his eyes green and his hair brown. His only distinguishing marks are two vaccination marks on his left arm. I don’t know why I find it upsetting to know that his eyes were green.

On 22 December 1914 he embarked for Egypt on the HMAT ‘Berrima’, arriving there for further training in January 1915. On the 25th April  the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) landed at Gallipoli together with troops from New Zealand, Britain, and France. This began a campaign that ended with the evacuation of troops on 19 and 20 December 1915. 

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Anzac Cove, 4th Battalion landing 25 April 1915. Photo: copyright expired

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The Australian and New Zealand forces held out for months on the narrow beachhead that became known as  Anzac Cove. Quite apart from the sniping and shelling from the hills above, conditions there were terrible. From the start, it was a quite pointless campaign with much digging in, and little or no ground gained. Then on 6th August, having survived one nightmare, the 14th battalion took part in the final British attempt to wrest control of the Gallipoli Peninsula from the defending Ottoman Turks. This involved the Anzacs moving up the coast to take Hill 971, a beetling, rugged ridge known to the troops as The Sphinx.  From an account in the official war diary,  the advance uphill and across impossible terrain that only gave great advantage to the enemy was courageous if chaotic; there were many casualties.

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Anzac Cove. Great War Primary Document Archive: Photos of the Great War

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On  8th August Victor Rowles was taken aboard the hospital ship Devanha where he died of gunshot wounds. He was buried at sea on the 10th August, two miles east of Mudros Harbour on the island of Lemnos. His few effects, including a handkerchief, manicure-set, letters and photos, were later sent to his Aunt Louisa, as were the memorial scroll and plaque. All these items are lost now, along with his three medals.  Nonetheless, now that I have found out these few fragments of his life, I will surely remember him, along with the many thousands of brave, but needlessly lost ones on both sides of the Gallipoli campaign.

© 2013 Tish Farrell

Related post: Looking for Giles AKA Private Victor Rowles

#nogloryinwar

 

Frizz’s weekly challenge: TTT

You can see the marvellous full-length film Gallipoli here. It movingly covers both sides in the conflict.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqqFMRcl_Q8

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It began with a locket owned by my great grandmother, Mary Ann Williamson Rowles, nee Fox. And it began with a long ago memory of her daughter, my grandmother, Lilian Shorrocks, telling me of a much loved younger step-brother. She said that he had died during the Great War, that he was shot while getting off a boat.

I was seven or eight at the time and did not understand what she was talking about, but I registered the sorrow at a young man pointlessly lost. I pictured him walking down a gang-plank from an ocean-going liner. For some reason I imagined he was wearing a brown suit as someone shot him. Perhaps grandmother had said the word Gallipoli. I can’t be sure, but all my life its utterance has somehow resonated, though without my knowing why.

Recently, I did find out why, and still find myself astonished that I can discover more of this forgotten ancestor’s too brief life by simply trawling the internet. Of course, as Su Leslie so often shows on her excellent family history blog, Shaking the Tree, discovering one nugget of information often raises a dozen other mysteries. But then that only makes the search all the more beguiling.

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The locket is now mine and it contains the plaited hair of all Mary Ann’s five children, including her step-son, Robert Shorrocks. The other children are my grandmother and her two siblings, Mary and Tom, born from great grandmother’s first marriage to Thomas Shorrocks of Farnworth, Manchester. And finally there is Giles, the youngest. He was born in 1896, a year after Mary Ann married widower, Charles Rowles, a master mariner and captain of a pilot boat on the Manchester Ship Canal.

It is Giles’ photograph in the locket. He is an impressive looking boy. The direct gaze, yet self-contained. I find myself wondering if he looked like his father, for we have no photo of Charles Rowles. My grandmother did not care for him, keeping only his big seaman’s chest which I also have. Otherwise, she threw out most of the family memorabilia that came down to her. She kept the locket though, and Mary Ann’s fine collection of miniature Shakespeare’s plays and poets. There is also a single faded photograph of my great grandmother, taken some time before she was married. My own mother always said that she had eloped.

Mary Ann Williamson Fox was a farmer’s daughter, her family having been yeoman farmers for generations. In fact they claimed to have lived on the farm called Callow since the 11th century. Family  mythology  also had it that a Fox ancestor was employed by the Eyre family as steward, the Eyres having been given land in Derbyshire for services rendered to William the Conqueror. Later the Duke of Devonshire from his grand house at Chatsworth became the landlord, and Mary Ann, at seventeen, is said to have opened the Chatsworth tenants’ ball with the Duke, she being the daughter of the oldest tenant-family  on the estate. For a long time the buttons of the dress she wore were fondly kept. Blue silk-covered ones, I was told.  I don’t know what happened to them.

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Mary Ann Williamson Fox in her late teens c. 1880

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Callow Farm, Hathersage, Derbyshire where the Fox family lived from at least the 1700s, and where Mary Ann was born. This photo was taken in the 1970s.

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How it was that country girl Mary Ann came to fall for a spindle manufacturer from Bolton, Manchester is the first of many mysteries. My grandmother said that her mother fell for the first townie she saw in a stove-pipe hat. Maybe he was in the area on business. In any event, Thomas Shorrocks was a widower, ten years older than Mary Ann, and with a young son, Robert. Mary Ann was 22 and they were married by special license at St Michael’s church, Hathersage, with her elder brother, Robert and his wife, Edith, as witnesses.

Thomas took his young wife from the wilds of the Derbyshire peaks where she was used to riding at will, and jumping farm-gates on her pony, to live in the gloomy streets of Farnworth. There, the ever darkly clad mill women regarded  Mary Ann’s country print dresses with deep suspicion.

The Shorrocks lived in a modest terraced house on Kildare Street, although Mary Ann did have a servant, a girl she had brought from Hathersage. Soon there were three more young children, offspring whom Thomas Shorrocks apparently made a point of avoiding, staying out of the house until they had gone to bed. My grandmother said she did not know him. Then disaster struck. In 1893, only seven years into the marriage, Mary Ann was left a widow. Not only that, in the same year, the Shorrocks family company that, in 1861 had employed 32 men and 22 boys, was declared bankrupt. Perhaps it was this that finished off poor Thomas at the age of 39.

It is not clear where Mary Ann was for the next year or so, but in 1895, Warrington licensing records show that she had taken over the running of the Old Red Lion inn in Hollinfare, (also called Hollins Green) a farming village near the Manchester Ship Canal. The inn, as was common in rural areas, had also once been run as a farm. It thus came with pasture, cow sheds and stabling.

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The Old Red Lion today has seen extensive alterations in the 1960s and 1980s. It was one of the oldest inns in the village, and already in existence by the 1670s. Although Giles was born there in 1896, I’m not sure he would quite recognize it today.

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Family legend says that the Fox family arranged for Mary Ann to take over the inn so she would have a roof over her head and an income to support her family. In fact it seems she took over the license from one George Fox who had been landlord there since 1894. This could have been either her father, George Brayley Fox, or her younger brother, George. Her father had sold up the farm stock in 1892 due to a depression in agriculture, and then given up the tenancy on Callow Farm.  After 1893 there were no more Foxes at Callow, a circumstance that made the local and regional press in that year.

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Derbyshire Times & Chesterfield Herald 25 March 1893

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When Mary Ann took over the inn in Hollinfare she called herself Mary Ann Williamson using her Christian names, and dropping the Shorrocks. Perhaps she wanted to escape the taint of bankruptcy. A year later she was getting married to Charles Rowles. Perhaps, when he was not piloting cargo ships into Manchester, he visited the inn. Again, he was considerably older, this time a widower with two grown-up daughters. According to my grandmother, the existence of these two young women was a surprise to everyone. They apparently came and ruled the roost for a time.

In 1901, Mary Ann exchanged inns with another woman licensee, and moved to the Bowling Green Inn at the top of the village. The inn no longer exists, and Hollinfare’s community centre now occupies the site. The reason for such a move is unclear, but perhaps the premises had more living accommodation. By now Mary Ann’s rather simple-minded younger sister, Louisa, was living with her and helping with household duties. It is likely,too, that their father also came to live there at some point, since he is buried in Hollinfare’s little cemetery, along with Mary Ann.

And so we come to Giles. In 1903, when he was seven, his father died. In 1909, when he was thirteen, Mary Ann died. Her death certificate suggests she was by then living with her step-son, Robert Shorrocks in Moss Side, Manchester. He witnessed her death from heart disease. She was 46.

What happened to Giles at this point is another mystery. The 1911 census shows the four Shorrocks siblings living in Moss Side. Robert is head of household and Aunt Louisa is still taking care of household duties. By now Robert is 28 and an insurance agent. My great aunt Mary and grandmother Lilian are in their early twenties and listed as ‘blouse finishers’. The youngest brother, Tom, was 19 and a railway clerk. Giles, though, is not with them. He is now 15 years old and trainee clerk with a shipping broker far away in Cardiff. He is living with his father’s widowed sister-in-law, Louisa Rowles and her two adult children. In 1912 there’s the possibility that he took passage to Halifax, Canada on the SS Hesperian, but there is no conclusive evidence.

When he appears again it is 15 October 1914. He is 18 and 7 months and enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force in Melbourne, Australia. He calls himself a sailor (all the Rowles men had sea-faring connections). AND he has changed his name to Victor. The enlistment papers give Louisa Rowles of Cardiff as his next of kin. He specifically denies ever having served an apprenticeship. (Did he run away to sea to escape being a clerk?)

But why the change of name? My own guess is that Giles seemed too soft a name for mariner. His military papers show he was 5 feet 5 inches. Perhaps a little on the short side too, so may be he felt he had something to prove. We’ll never know. There is no one left to ask.

He joined the 14th Battalion AIF and would then have gone to Broadmeadows for training, before embarking for Egypt on the Berrima in December 1914. After further training in Egypt, the 14th took part in the April landing at Gallipoli. So began the gruesome, fruitless, bloody siege. All we know is that he survived to take part in the August Offensive. This involved the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps moving up the coast to attack two peaks of the Sari Bair range while the British and French forces defended Helles.

Giles was presumably wounded while trying to land for the second time in 5 months on this torturous, wretched shore. The next record is 8 August 1915 when Private Victor Rowles no. 1402 is admitted to the hospital ship Devanha with gunshot wounds. He died at 10pm on 10 August and was buried at sea, 2 miles east of Mudros Harbour, Lemnos.

An inventory of his effects was made in 1916. It comprises “one brown paper parcel” which includes a cigarette case, pipe, letters, photos and a handkerchief. These were apparently sent to Aunt Louisa Rowles. Later, in 1919, official records say she received a memorial plaque and scroll. It is not clear what happened to his medals: 1914-15 Star, British War medal and Victory Medal.

Giles is commemorated in his ill-fated name of Victor at Lone Pine Memorial, Turkey and on the Australian War Memorial at Canberra. In the quiet little cemetery at Hollinfare, his passing is marked under his given name of Giles. Perhaps his step-siblings added the inscription to his parents’ and grandfather’s stone.  It commemorates “Pte Giles son of the above Charles and Mary A Rowles, who died of wounds received at the Dardanelles on August 1oth 1915 aged 19. He hath done what he could.”

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But in the end, and despite all the family tragedies, I would like to think that Giles had some happiness in his short life: when he went to sea; or in his early days in Hollinfare. My grandmother adored him, and her older sister Mary was said the kindest soul. I feel sure they would have ‘mothered’ him, probably beyond a boy’s endurance. Step-brother, Robert Shorrocks also appears  to have been everyone’s rock, including his step-mother’s. Certainly in old age he was still very close to my grandmother and grandfather.

Of her childhood days, grandmother told of how they used to raid the inn pantry for tinned fruit, and eat it secretly out in the garden. Then  they would slide down the steep banks of the Manchester Ship Canal, getting their knickers green. There were annual visits by the dancing bear and his man whom Mary Ann allowed to stay in the inn stables.

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I would like to think that this photo of Hollinfare boys around the Coronation Tree included Giles. In the background is St. Helen’s chapel where Mary Ann could well have married Charles Rowles in 1895. These propositions, along with many others, remain to be verified. The search for Giles/Victor Rowles continues…

#nogloryinwar

© 2013 Tish Farrell

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Perhaps it is Jonas Kilimani’s choice of alias that makes things go so badly wrong in Mbogo sub-location. Or maybe he’s just not cut out to be a sleuth. Or it could even be his bad choice in suits. But whatever the cause, everyone is running rings round ‘Joe Sabuni’, and it all starts when his Uncle Micah sends him upcountry to track down a man who owes him money. It’s not much of a job, but Jonas is desperate to impress. He has college loans to pay back, and rich girlfriend, Keziah, to keep happy. And if he pleases Uncle Micah, maybe the man will give him a real job, as he’d long ago promised…

Cover artwork: Bob Harvey

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Okay, I am taking advantage of Frizztext’s JJJ-challenge for another piece of self-publicity. Also I think Jonas Kilimani deserves to be better known. He’s a really nice guy, and I’m glad I created him. He actually began life as a tiny notion while I was out on Kenya’s farms surveying smut-infected grass with the Team Leader. (For  more about smut see earlier post HERE). It’s amazing how one thing leads to another, and all apparently unrelated. There is no smut in Joe Sabuni by the way. Or maybe just a smidgeon – involving the dreadful Keziah of course.

I began writing stories for the African children’s literature market while we were living in Kenya in the 1990s. I think it was fury that started me off. There had been an article in the local press about children’s books, and the lack of locally written ones. It included a quote from a school girl saying she did not know there were stories with African heroes and heroines.

My first reaction was bewilderment. (The fury came later.) I began to look along the shelves of Nairobi’s bookshops. I could see that the girl had a point. Most of the locally produced fiction comprised folk tales, which I, as an outsider, had until then been more than happy to see and buy.

Now I began to regard them with fresh eyes. If I were six or nine or thirteen years old what would I think about such books? The design was often minimal, the paper quality poor, the stories wholly unrelated to modern day living, since the texts had mostly remained frozen in some colonial time when an avid ethnographer had recorded them. And so by comparison with these dry looking tales, would not the imported British and American paperbacks seem infinitely more glamorous and slick?

And yes, for sure, there would be no African kids featured in the rows of Enid Blytons or the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries, or in the Ladybird versions of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. For these, I discovered, were at that time the mainstay of the children’s section. Even the school curriculum  English literature texts were books like Gogol’s Government Inspector or Dickens.

In fact, given the era when all these books were written, there would be no dark faces in them at all. That the stories were written in times long past would not necessarily be apparent to young Kenyan readers. I remember a ten-year old girl telling me that her dream was to ride her bicycle on country lanes and go wherever she pleased just as the Famous Five did. It was hard to know what to say to this. It seemed such a lovely dream.

Anyway, all this started me wondering what it might be like to only read books about children who were nothing like me AT ALL. How would that make me feel about myself: that I wasn’t cut out for hero-dom?

Of course the reason for all the imported revamped  titles was because they were far cheaper than mainstream market books, and parents were more likely to be able to afford them. There is anyway a resistance to buying fiction, since stories are considered an unnecessary luxury when parents have to spend so much on school textbooks every year.

And so we start getting to the heart of the problem. Kenyan publishers, like many others across the continent, struggle along producing textbooks, often in collaboration with British publishers like Oxford University Press, Macmillan and Longman. They can’t afford to produce much fiction, and that means there are not many local fiction writers. Classic authors like Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Meja Mwangi are few and far between, and Ngugi has anyway long lived abroad in America. The best Kenyan writing, then, is mostly to be found in the country’s excellent newspapers, and they are aimed at adults not children.

As a writer, though, I learned a lot from the late Wahome Mutahi and his hilarious Whispers column, and also from the trenchant political analysis of John Githongo. The end result was Joe Sabuni P.I., a humorous teen short novel set in the fictitious city of Greenvale, somewhere in East Africa. It is published in the Heinemann Junior African Writers Series, now a Pearson imprint.

One of my best moments came a few years ago when I learned that the book was also to be used in Zambian schools, and not only in English, but translated into 6 Zambian languages. This I gather was funded by the World Bank. Someone had the surprising idea that people learn to read best in their own language. I wonder how they came to think such a breath-taking thought.

Because that’s another thing, most African children who go to school do not learn in their vernacular, but in the language of whichever colonial power once ruled them. In Kenya the curriculum is conducted in English and the East African lingua franca, Ki-Swahili, although the vernacular may appear in the study of arcane oral literature texts.

I think this is what Ngugi wa Thiong’o means by ‘colonization of the mind.’

Of course you could say what on earth is an English woman doing writing for African kids in their second or third language? It’s a good question. As I said it was fury that drove me. I wanted to tell contemporary stories that showed Kenyan kids their own wonderful selves, and in situations they might recognize. That these stories have also proved popular in other English-speaking countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe is a bonus. A couple have won prizes of which I am inordinately proud.

You can read a sample of Joe Sabuni P.I. on Google HERE. Please forgive the fact that Google copywriters can’t spell the word ‘rotten’. And nor can Amazon.

© 2013 Tish Farrell

 

 

“…there is less rain and wind at Nice, than in any other part of the world that I know; and such is the serenity of the air, that you see nothing above your head for several months together, but a charming blue expanse, without cloud or speck.”

Tobias Smollett Travels Through France And Italy 1764

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Umbrellas beside the Promenade des Anglais, round-topped palms and the cupola of the Hotel Negresco against a china blue sky. Where else but Nice.

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Nice is pretty much a year-round travel destination, a fact first discovered in 1731 by members of the English aristocracy. Lord and Lady Cavendish were the trendsetters in question, and from the time of their visit onwards, anyone who was anyone began to spend the winter season there. By 1860 there were 704 foreign families wintering in this way. Of these, 252 were English, and 128 were Russian. There were lesser numbers of well-heeled Germans and Americans. The arrival of the railway in 1864 further helped to boost upper class tourism, making it possible to leave London Bridge Station at 7.40 on a Monday morning, and reach Nice by Tuesday suppertime. 

The benign climate and shiny bright days also made it popular with convalescents,  the “pale and listless English women and listless sons of nobility near death” as French historian Paul Gonnet described them. Very soon then, and in response to this influx of moneyed people,  Nice the fishing port transformed itself into Nice the fashionable resort for Europe’s elite. 

Among that elite was an elderly Queen Victoria. She travelled under the name Lady Balmoral, although heaven knows why. There could have been no failing to notice her arrival, coming as she did in her own train, accompanied with up to a hundred staff, and her Scottish pipers piping her in. Full warning of her advent was further marked by the forward arrival of her bed.  In 1895 and 1896 she spent her spring sojourn in The Grand Hotel, Cimiez just outside Nice. But for the next three years she and all her royal household would occupy, through March and April, the entire west wing of the Hotel Excelsior Regina Palace.  This was a brand new hotel, built with the Queen specifically in mind, it being well recognized that Lady Balmoral’s continued patronage of Nice did much to boost local business and encourage tourism. By the end of the 19th century the city’s population  reputedly increased by 80,000 during the winter months.

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One wing of the vast Hotel Excelsior Regina Palace, now apartments.

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One of the things that most people know about Queen Victoria is that she was tiresomely dreary for years after Prince Albert’s death. When in Nice, though, she underwent a complete  transformation, girlishly taking part in local festivities, driving around in a donkey cart that allowed her to explore byways  too narrow for her carriage, inviting the scarcely respectable Sarah Bernhardt to put on a private performance, handing out presents to all and sundry. In fact she brought with her to France a trunk filled with watches and chains, pens, inkstands, portraits and cigarette holders. These she bestowed on all ranks – from hotel staff upwards, while keeping account of who had received what so she would not give anyone the same thing twice. On her death bed she famously said, “If only I were at Nice, I would recover.”

Hotel Negresco, Promenade des Anglais

In the 20th century, the Cote d’ Azur became the haunt of the avant-garde: Matisse, Picasso, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, Chagall. In later life Matisse had a studio in the The Hotel Excelsior. But for travellers and tourists, the hotel to stay in was, and still is  for that matter, Le Negresco.

It was built by Henri Negrescu (later Negresco), son of a Romanian innkeeper,  and opened for business in 1913.  In the first year the hotel made a profit of 800,000 francs in gold, but then came war, and Negresco turned the place into a hospital. He died, penniless, a few years later. His hotel, though, goes from strength to strength. Its past guests include Louis Armstrong, Salvador Dali, Princess Grace of Monaco, Queen Elizabeth II, Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Beatles, Ava Gardner, James Dean, Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf, and Michael Jackson.

When we visited Nice a few years ago we saw no one famous in the bar or foyer. In fact it was all rather quiet. We decided to have dinner in the hotel’s very bizarre brasserie, La Rotonde. As you can see, it’s an inside-out carousel in overdone pink.

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La Rotunde bistro at the Negresco

La Rotonde brasserie, Hotel Negresco

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Every hour, parts of the decor come to life, fairground style, while a life-size figure of a girl in an ill-fitting smock and straw hat rotates in the centre of the dining room. We found it all rather  perplexing, and the food was not good enough to distract us from feeling we were in the wrong place. In fact there were much nicer things to eat, or at least look at along the streets of Vieux Nice. And as it happens, most of them were round.

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bonbons

 

Easter Greetings Everyone

 

 

AILSA’S TRAVEL CHALLENGE: ROUND

A Word A Week Challenge: Round for more round posts

Nancy Merrill Photography

Snap Thoughts

It’s not what you look at that matters

 

Reference:

Michael Nelson 2007 Queen Victoria and the Discovery of the Riviera

© 2014 Tish Farrell

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”   L P Hartley The Go-Between      

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So what’s the mystery here? No, not that strange woman in a Welsh felted hat doing tai chi. (Actually,  I think I may be in the process of ‘grasping the sparrow’s tail’ Yang-style long form. I’ve rather forgotten).  I remember, though, the icy winter’s day, and the absolute stillness, and the hazy blue views of Wales over the border from my Shropshire homeland, and the feeling that this circle of ancient stones was a special place; that it stirred in me the sense that doing tai chi here would be a good thing.

I have written before about Mitchell’s Fold Bronze Age stone circle,  and you can find the witchy legend associated with it  HERE.  Historically speaking, little is known about the stones  beyond the fact that they were raised some 4,000 years ago. The surviving fifteen stones form a rough circle, although there may have once been as many as thirty. The tallest survivor is said to have originally been one of a pair, and so formed some kind of gateway or threshold at the circle’s edge.

These henges are, on the whole, unfathomable. There is no knowing how the people, who toiled to build them, made use of them, or what their precise significance was in their daily lives. The elevated location of Mitchell’s Fold, with its sweeping vistas, suggests to us a sacred function. There are also possibilities that the stones’ particular alignment served as some kind of calendar, marking solar and lunar events. And, for more prosaic purposes, in a world without maps and SatNav, prominently sited megaliths may also have provided travellers with landmarks to keep them on course through the upland wilds. The Bronze Age was, after all, a time of intinerant smiths and artisans who covered great distances to trade their goods and services.

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This is borne out by the fact that not far from Mitchell’s Fold, just over the Welsh border in Powys,  is the Cwm Mawr Bronze Age axe factory. The distinctive looking axe-hammers that were made here have been found across Wales and England, their discovery demonstrating an extensive trading network. Nor is this henge an isolated monument in the immediate landscape. There are numerous cairns and two further stone circles nearby. This seemingly remote place, then, was very busy some four millennia ago.

As a Prehistory undergraduate, also in times long past, I spent three years in Sheffield University lecture theatres looking at images of barrows, chambered tombs, henges, hillforts, cist burials, urn cremations and other ancestral relics. This being the era of slide projection, the photographs were often shown upside down and back to front; it became a standing (or otherwise) joke, looking at remains from an inverted position. The fact is though, however you looked at them, their intrinsic meaning  could  not be divined. All that might be said is that these mysterious constructions were of immense importance to our forebears. We know this because of the great effort involved in their making; these were people who, by our standards, had very limited technology.

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And so here is another example of megalithic mystery. This is the late Stone Age (Neolithic) Lligwy burial chamber on Anglesey in Wales. Excavation in 1908-9 uncovered the remains of 15-30 people, along with pottery that provided the dating evidence. It is estimated that the capstone weights 25 tonnes. This is truly mind-boggling. How did people without cranes lift this monstrosity onto the supporting stones? How  many people did it take? Wasn’t the population in prehistory supposed to be small?

Of course experimental archaeology has demonstrated that much may be achieved with the cunning use of tree trunk rollers and various simple pulley devices combined with muscle power. But even so,  the Lligwy burial chamber is surely  a triumph of human will  over an absence of hydraulic lifting gear. In this era people had only stone tools.

So yes, the past is a foreign country, and people did do things differently there, and in ways we cannot possibly know. And if I learned anything from three years of studying Prehistory and Archaeology it was not to judge people by their limited toolkit. These people were as intelligent as we are, maybe more so, since there was a greater need to apply it at all times.

Our current understanding of these  monuments may be fragmentary, wrong-headed even, but shouldn’t this be all the more reason to keep these ancient places safe? At this present time in England our heritage is daily under threat from a government that wishes to build its way out of  recession.  Worse still, current laws allow developers to take local authorities to judicial review  if their  planning applications are refused.

To avoid  incurring huge costs to the public in legal representation, local authorities are now being pushed to grant planning permission in close proximity to unique monuments.  At present, in Shropshire, the setting of  2 major sites  is under threat: Old Oswestry Iron Age hillfort, and the post-Roman Offa’s Dyke. Why this is happening is of course absolutely no mystery at all.  The past has cachet. It is a highly sellable ‘commodity’. Let’s sell it off, why don’t we?

© 2014 Tish Farrell

Related:

Valuing the Past: How  much for Old Oswestry Hillfort?

Open to Offa’s: yet another piece of Shropshire’s heritage at risk  in The Heritage Journal  along with many other excellent articles

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Monument

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The Human Rights Warrior

FRIZZ’S TAGGED ‘O’  GO HERE FOR MORE ‘O’ STORIES

Tish Farrell:

It is twenty years since the terrible Rwandan genocide. Here is a story from African Heritage blog about an extraordinary African hero, the UN captain from Senegal, Mbaye Diagne. He saved a thousand lives and lost his own.

Originally posted on African Heritage:

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I still remember the day the Rwandan genocide started. I was just in “4eme”, and the images of the genocide on TV made me cry at night! What could I do, me… a simple school child in Cameroon, except watching on television and praying for someone or something to stop this butchery! Well… among all the heroes mentioned in books and documentaries about Rwanda, a fellow African heard my cry, a Senegalese UN soldier who was in Rwanda decided to act… with no guns, no arms, and no authorization from the UN, he decided to take destiny in his hands…. He is almost forgotten when people talk of Rwanda: few ever mention the act of bravery from this African soldier stationed there.

Yes… I am talking about the young Senegalese captain Mbaye Diagne who was working for the UN in Rwanda. From the first hours of the genocide, he decided to…

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“We simply don’t want to live in a world without old-school staples like rounded coffee counters, shiny stools, leather booths, jukeboxes, prefabricated stone or steel exteriors and black-and-white photos of “famous clientele” hanging on the walls”

Best of Gothamist

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Manhattan Diner Upper West Side 2008

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Big Nick’s Upper West Side 2008

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I’m posting these photos as a farewell to two New York diners. Being a bit of a food faddist (organic, unprocessed, no GMO), I never expected to like these places so much. Perhaps it was the sense of community that struck me most.  Big Nick’s closed its doors in July 2013, after fifty years in the business. Sad.  Though I have to say, some of  the decor on these shots looks as if it hasn’t been  ‘refreshed’ in all that time. The rather smarter Manhattan Diner, where we had breakfast while staying in Upper West Side’s Hotel Belleclaire, was  just across  the road from Big Nick’s, on the corner of Broadway and 77th. It was forced to close a few years ago to make way for development.

These diners were much loved and served neighbourhood locals and visitors 24/7. Perhaps they did  not offer the healthiest menus in the world, and dishes were served up with mega-portions. But fresh fruit and yoghourt at the Manhattan Diner made a delicious breakfast, to say nothing of their frittata. And all the coffee you could drink and huge glasses of iced water, and that feeling of being part of NYC even though we were strangers…

© 2014 Tish Farrell

FRIZZ’S ‘N’ CHALLENGE

 

 

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Kilimanjaro rising behind the Chyulu Hills, Ukambani, Kenya. Photo taken from the Mombasa Highway during the December short rains.

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Mount Kenya from the plane window, looking over the European-owned wheat farms of Laikipia

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It is one of history’s bizarre anecdotes, that one of these two old volcanoes was once given away as a birthday present. But before I reveal how this happened, please take a look at the map. Head for the centre.

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Here you will see that Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro and Kenya’s Mount Kenya lie pretty much on the same north-south axis, albeit a couple of hundred miles apart. In an earlier post about Denys Finch Hatton’s burial place in the Ngong Hills (to the left of Nairobi on the map) I quoted Karen Blixen’s description of how  one sunset, she and Denys had witnessed a simultaneous sighting of Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. This must have been something to see, for these mountains can be frustratingly elusive when it comes to showing themselves. One moment you can be looking them full in the face; the next they have dissolved into a clear blue sky as if they were never there. You blink and wonder how this could have possibly happen. It is doubtless a quantum physics thing, but in the absence of more scientific explanations, the phenomenon anyway seems quite mystical. It is not surprising, then, that local people have long regarded these mountains as sacred places that may, from time to time, be visited by the Creator.

But to return to the mountainous birthday gift.

If you look again at the map you will see how the border between Kenya and Tanzania makes a sudden kink to encompass Kilimanjaro.  This daft piece of map-making is testimony of a tussle in colonial expansionism (Britain versus Germany) and the kind of queenly megalomania  that thought it perfectly reasonable to take possession of someone else’s mountain and then make a gift of it to a fellow monarch, a personage whom she rather despised even though he was a close relative.

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I’m sure you will have guessed by now that we are talking of Queen Victoria  and Kaiser Wilhelm. One can only presume that someone who also called herself  the Empress of India would think nothing of the sharing out of stolen mountains. I dare say she thought it made up for the fact that she had bagged the territories now known as Kenya and Uganda when Wilhelm had wanted them too. Perhaps she also thought that giving Wilhelm the taller of the two would also help to placate him.  If she had stopped to consider the fact that Kilimanjaro was only a dormant volcano, she might have had second thoughts.  It was altogether too ominous a gift.

In the end the whole land-grabbing deal was  ratified in the Heligoland  Treaty of 1890, and the map-makers  then duly drew a line straight through the middle of Maasai territory coupled with the requisite detour round Kilimanjaro. They called one side British East Africa, and the other German East Africa. Meanwhile the locals, who comprised very many different ethnic communities, were largely unaware how far they had been scrambled, or indeed scrobbled, to borrow a term of dastardly rapine from John Masefield and The Box of Delights. They were soon to find out. On the British side it began with the setting up of forts along the proposed line of rail for the Uganda Railway. This 600-mile line from Mombasa to Lake Victoria would be the means by which the Empress of India would get her troops (mainly Indian ones) swiftly to the source of the Nile. Why she would ever need to do this will have to wait for another post. Suffice it to say that this project was substantially dafter  than the giving of mountains as birthday presents. Even at the time people thought so. In Britain they called it  the Lunatic Line. In East Africa the invaded called it the Iron Snake.

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Glimpse of Kilimanjaro on the flight from Zanzibar to Mombasa

© 2014 Tish Farrell

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Ailsa’s travel theme: misty Click here for more scenes of mistiness

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Mombasa Beach is as busy as any street, and like any downtown district anything can be traded there. In the margin between ocean and hinterland, people feel they can live outside accepted moral and  cultural bounds. Kikuyu boys may dress up as Maasai to cash in the ‘warrior’ cachet that is so attractive to European women; white women of a certain age think it OK to flaunt themselves on the sands with lovely young Kenyan boys whose real hope is to be adopted or sponsored through school; dope can be bought along with the kanga wraps and hand-carved giraffes. All, then, may not be quite what it seems in this Indian Ocean ‘paradise’.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life

 

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I thought it was time I welcomed good friend and artist, Sheilagh Jevons, to this blog. She lives a few miles from me along Wenlock Edge, in the little village of Easthope. There, and in her studio not far away, she creates arresting work that explores the sense of belonging that people have with landscape.

From time to time she and I have involving conversations about the creative process – the stumbling blocks, the sources of inspiration, the way we work (or in my case, don’t work). A few weeks ago she came round for coffee. I wanted to ask her about a painting I had seen in her studio. I had thought it striking and mysterious, and wanted to know what she meant by it. Besides which, it is hard to resist the opportunity to grill an artist when you have one captured inside your house.

The image above is a small detail from a work called The House of Belonging. This figure has appeared in Sheilagh’s other works and represents women artists. Some of their names are written on the smock, artists perhaps not well known to the general public. Here she pays homage to their work, but also alludes to the fact that, overall, very little work by women artists is to be found in museums.

The writing of names and of repeated key-words and equations is characteristic of many of Sheilagh’s pieces. It was one of the things I was going to ask her about. But first, the painting.

 

 

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It is a large canvas, some 4 feet (120cm) square. The next photo gives a better sense of scale. Here it is hanging in Sheilagh’s studio:

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I asked Sheilagh how the work began.

She told me that some years ago the idea of belonging had become very important to her. As she says on her website “Our ‘sense of belonging’ ripples out from our homes to our village, street, town, county, region and country and help to shape our identity…”

Key, then, to her work is a sense of connection to land and how that relationship defines us. This in turn has physical expression in community repositories, the places where we keep artefacts, our history, the knowledge of ancestors – all the familiar things we recognise and which tell us something of who we are. In other words, the museum, or as Sheilagh describes it: the house of belonging.

The script running down the left-hand margin of the painting in fact repeats over and over the words ‘the museum’, the house of belonging’. The repetition reflects the strong political stance of Sheilagh’s work. To me this is ‘the writing on the wall’, a statement of collective ownership; The House of Belonging staking a claim. Its contents are manifestations of how humans have interacted with their landscape and the place they call home. Sheilagh also says that adding text creates a certain texture; that the sense of a hand moving across the work creates a connection with her, its maker.

The wheeled blue structure, then, is the House of Belonging. The words written inside say ‘everybody’s knowledge’. This is written twice so there can be no mistake. It feels like something to stand up for, a rallying call. It is also important, Sheilagh says, that the House can move across the landscape to where the people are, rather than the other way round; this makes it more egalitarian. Inside the House are images and artefacts, symbols of creativity. Some of them are stereotypical of ‘heritage’ and therefore instantly recognisable. For instance, the chess pieces (centre left in the painting) are derived from the Scottish Isle of Lewis Chess Set in the British Museum. The set dates from AD 1150-1200 and suggests Norse influence or origins.

 

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Sheilagh copied and simplified the images from a sales catalogue that specialises in heritage reproductions. The placing of the queen in the central position is also significant. She says she feels bound to redress an imbalance: the fact that in most of our media women only occupy centre stage when they are being commodified in some way.

And then there is the mathematical equation painted in red beneath the red tree, centre right of the painting.

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The presence of equations in Sheilagh’s works adds a further layer meaning for her, and although she doesn’t think it necessary to explain them, she is always very pleased when people recognise them.

This particular one refers to mathematical research by American academics in the 1920s called The Geometry of Paths. The appearance of equations in Sheilagh’s paintings also has more personal origins. She tells me she started to include them some years ago – after she had been helping her daughter revise for her Maths and Physics A’ level exams. It is another connection.

There are many more signifiers in the work: motifs that have links and resonance with Sheilagh’s other works. The red tree above the equation is a symbol of timelessness, indicating ‘forever’ in human terms. 

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The red arrow in the top right creates a sense of energy and direction; a ‘look what’s here’ sign. There is the sense of a force field, drawing people to the House of Belonging.

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Finally, we talked about the overall composition. Sheilagh says that she began the work some years ago after she noticed that a small building denoting ‘museum’ often appeared in her landscapes. This time she wanted it to have it as the main subject, and to make it both an enticing and a mysterious place. At this point she also created the friezes at the top and bottom of the picture, these in order to suggest other layers of reality behind the surface painting. The top frieze is the wider, timeless landscape of which the museum is also symbol. The bottom frieze is deliberately ambiguous and suggestive; it invites the viewer to consider what might lie behind.

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And having created the work’s essential structure, the painting was then abandoned. It was only some fifteen months later, when Sheilagh, looking for a large canvas to start another work, returned to it. She was fully intending to paint over it, but when she looked at it again she suddenly knew how to proceed and completed the work very swiftly. She says it probably is not quite finished, and suspects that something may still need to be added.

In the meantime she has been occupied with a large body of work relating to Scotland. Having strong Scottish roots herself she has been moved to explore that nation’s landscape against the backdrop of the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. In the next photo, taken in her studio, Sheilagh explains the preparatory work she has done for a project inspired by a recent trip to St.Kilda in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.

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For more about Sheilagh’s work and exhibitions please visit her website and blog:

Sheilagh Jevons Contemporary Artist website

Artist at the Mogg blog

 

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Artist’s makings in Sheilagh Jevon’s studio

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Frizz’s ‘L’ Challenge for more stories

© 2014 Tish Farrell

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Sometimes we rural Much Wenlock souls get to visit the city, our nearest one being Wolverhampton. A couple of Sundays ago we were lucky enough to have tickets to see the Tord Gustavsen Quartet at Wolverhampton University’s Arena Theatre (Jazz at the Arena). It was the final night of their British tour, and what a night it was – utterly captivating musicianship. You can see Peter Bacon’s review at The Jazz Breakfast.

En route to the concert, and to prepare  myself for some Nordic introspection and reflection, I thought I’d dabble in a little West Midlands Noir. I used my Canon Powershot A430, bought on Ebay for twenty quid, and then fiddled about on Windows Live  Photo Gallery. The shots were taken near the theatre and include St Peter’s Church and  other University of Wolverhampton buildings. While I was in the Arena bar I also happened to notice that it had a reflective ceiling.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: reflections

TORD GUSTAVSEN QUARTET: THE WELL

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3A6ziUPbdk

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