Photo: Simon Wand
View From Hoad
Column for Westmorland Gazette
Home Is Where The Heart Is
I’ve been doing a lot of travelling recently, landing back in Ulverston for a just a few days between trips before taking off again. A short holiday in Copenhagen, cycling through sunny streets and along glorious waterways, a writer’s conference in Leeds, staying in the Harry Potter-esque Devonshire Hall and now a week in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, catching up with family and friends. I feel uprooted. I have my lap top, and am staying in touch remotely and most people don’t know I’m gone, and yet I feel disconnected. I have a stack of books, sunshine, a beautiful garden to sit in and time to read; my idea of heaven, and yet… I’m homesick.
Hitchin was once my home. I have retraced my history, identifying where I rented a room, the first little terraced house I bought as a single woman, the outdoor pool where I swam long lengths in sun and rain, the park where I lost my dog the day I brought her back from the shelter. I remember that same dog, along with all our worldly possessions, crammed into our small Renault as we drove up the M6 to begin our Ulverston life. We had no idea then that we would stay, but within days the decision had been made. A gut instinct, a sense that one day we might belong here. I’ve never felt homesick for London, where I lived the first 19 years of my life. I’ve never felt homesick for Hitchin, but Ulverston tugs me back. A retired shipyard worker from Barrow once told me I’d never be able to leave the Furness peninsula, the mist from the bay creeps into your bones as you sleep. Beth Broomby (once a journalist for this paper) a writer for the collaborative Radio 4 play, Heft Like The Herdwick, described with beautiful lyricism how Cumbrians are born of Lakeland water. It enters their pores as they swim in the lakes and walk in the rain. I have watched this become truth with my daughters and I too feel the gentle damp, pulling me back.
Ulverston On The Map.
I’ve just spent a week on a writing course in Ty Newydd Writing Centre, North Wales. Having enjoyed my novels, psychological thrillers inspired by Ulverston and the surrounding landscape, a TV production company asked me to write a speculative script for TV. I wasn’t sure I could. Hence the course, with Matthew Hall who wrote the hugely successful, Keeping Faith. The course was fabulous and I am raring to go with my story and a newly acquired tool kit with which to craft it. But these tools are also helpful life skills. Stories are, essentially about people and relationships and good stories start with strong characters, so there was much discussion of human behaviour. Writers are, by their nature, observers, but I am of Eastern European heritage and by nature emotional and reactive. If someone annoys me I am compelled to step forward and confront them. This is not always helpful, to say the least. Far more productive would be to pause and consider, as a writer, why they might be behaving this way? What do they want from this situation? What is the external obstacle they have encountered? And what might be their internal obstacle? This is all well and good, but I suspect I shall fail miserably on occasion, still, I am going to try. If I am only partially successful, l will, at the very least, have gained a little grace with age, and a host of characters to include in future stories.
Don’t Tolerate Intolerance
I’m am migrant on many levels: an off-comer and a southerner with a Polish mother, but I am proud to be British and part of a rich, multicultural society.
Some years ago, at a family event, I was shocked to hear a cousin I was quite close to, on my British husband’s side, launch an angry tirade against migrants. It was not directed at me, but left me feeling quite sick and humiliated. I bit my tongue and retreated. I have never forgiven myself for my cowardice.
This weekend, at a family wedding in Hertfordshire, the situation arose again. A distant relative I didn’t know, made a sneery joke about Romanians and Poles. I had to speak. We are living in precarious times and the need to stop this sort of talk is urgent. I kept a smile on my face and said, brightly, “I’m very sorry, but I can’t let you get away with that.” When I told him I was Polish he said “I was only joking” and dismissed me with a wave of his hand. I kept going, calm, still smiling, “But this isn’t a joke. You can’t say something like that without being held to account. Everyone knows a Polish builder, fruit-picker or cleaner, but what you won’t know is that they may be a fully qualified solicitor back in Poland, or have a doctorate, and even if they don’t, they deserve your respect. Migrants aren’t chancers, they are simply people who have had to move, for whatever reason. They may be dentists, doctors, engineers, charity workers, film makers or writers. People just like you. To dismiss them is unacceptable and un-British. We live in a multicultural country and I am proud of that; you should be too.” He was embarrassed (and angry) , but no-one else was, and he will be more careful in future. We all have a responsibility to demonstrate generosity and goodwill to our fellow human beings. It’s the best of being British. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. No more tolerance of intolerance.
Let's Change The World
Whatever your politics, you can’t escape the intolerance, egotism and ugliness that surrounds us right now. We seem to be spiraling towards crisis and change is inevitable. We don’t yet know if it will be for the better, but maybe we can do something about that.
Humans can be selfish and intolerant, but also generous and kind. It takes one person to change the world, in however small a way. While James Dyson chose to move production and HQ to South East Asia, JK Rowling insisted the cast and crew for Harry Potter were British; the positive impact her decision had on our creative industries was enormous and continues. One person, one decision, huge effect.
We may not be wealthy or famous, but we do have choices at some level which give us a small amount of power over our own lives and these can ripple to have more impact than we realise. When a Glaswegian factory worker refused to service Chile’s jet fighters after the 1973 military coup, his protest all but grounded the air force and may have saved lives. Others followed, but it began with that one man’s decision. Nicholas Winton saved 10,000 children with the Kinder Transport. On a less public scale we can all help someone in need, be kind, generous. We will be remembered for what we did for other people. Look at our town and the festivals we enjoy, the amazing ‘doers’, Jennie Dennett and Rachael Weaver who brighten our days with record breaking events that bring our community together, creating memories to lift our hearts, Dave Crossley who works tirelessly to build Another Fine Fest year on year, Ceri Hutton and the army of volunteers who manage the Coronation Hall and UCE for the good of us all, everyone at Ford Park who enable us to keep that green space and facilities for our enjoyment. Individuals, all giving something of themselves to make a difference. As long as we have choices, we have a responsibility to leave this world a little better than we found it. Ask yourself, what can I do? Now do it.
New Year Resolutions
I have developed a new approach to New Year Resolutions. Firstly: don’t make resolutions you don’t really want to keep. Starting a new fitness regime in January? Seriously? Do you honestly want to run in the cold and rain, strip off in public changing rooms and try to master the machinery of the gym? If you do this already and enjoy it, then fine, but if this has never been your chosen form of leisure activity, why subject yourself to it at the coldest, darkest time of the year when what you really want to do is hibernate? Wait until the spring, when the days are longer, the weather kinder, and you can really enjoy the experience. Secondly: find resolutions that are fun and enrich your life. I once made the resolution to go to the theatre once a month. I realised I was trying to write plays, but I rarely went to see them. It didn’t have to be expensive; the aim was simply to see more plays. They could be amateur of professional. Knowing this was my resolution pushed me to accept every invitation and not procrastinate if I saw something advertised. I sometimes went alone, but by the end of the year I’d seen over 20 plays, had fun and developed my craft. This year my resolution is to read more books and to take my reading time seriously, rather than squeezing it into the ten minutes before I fall asleep at night. I will always have a book with me, so if I’m waiting for a delayed train, or an appointment, I will have something to do. I am also resolving to make a record of what I’ve read –just the title and what I thought of it, so I can make recommendations. Another good one is to make more time for friends and arrange to see someone once a week. I do make the regular resolutions: try to be kinder, more patient, swear less, drink less, and I generally break these repeatedly, but sometimes the striving can be enough!
Take Your Foot Off The Pedal
I was driving home from Kendal to Ulverston last week, in my daughter’s car. Accustomed to a more powerful engine, I was frustrated at the lack of response when I put my foot to the floor to climb Lindale hill. It felt a little my professional life over the preceding weeks. Just three weeks to go and I still had only two confirmed bookings for my weekend writing course at the Reading Room, the recently restocked books in Booths did not include my paperback, the Cumbria Life feature promoting the second novel, had been bumped and an event I was to read at had been cancelled.
My brother, a freelance graphic novelist and illustrator, understands my pain. A life spent pitching ideas that are rejected, waiting for a stroke of luck or happenstance, is exhausting. Selling products is one thing, selling yourself and yours stories is far more personal and the rejection strikes much deeper.
“I’m tired of pushing water uphill,” I sobbed.
“So, stop pushing.”
I took his advice, closed the lap-top, went for a walk with a friend and caught up on some tv drama. For the rest of that week I got on with necessary admin, domestic tasks and allowed myself some time to read. I got a lot done and I was in a better mood. Walking over Hoad in the sunshine, I counted my blessings for this wonderful town where I have built a home.
And then bookings started to come in. People confirmed and the course sold out. Someone sent me a delightful review of the new book, I was offered another event and invited to be a studio guest for Radio Cumbria’s new arts programme. All was right with the world again.
I pass on my brother’s advice, if you have your foot to the floor and the car isn’t moving any faster, ease up on that pedal. Sit back. Enjoy the view.
Be Kind Whenever Possible; It Is Always Possible
I was fortunate enough to see The Jungle, this summer, a play about the refugee camp at Calais. An extraordinary piece of immersive theatre, where we sat at a table in the make-shift Afghan Café, sipping Chai tea, while the action unfolded around us. A little girl remained after the curtain call, alone on the stage, a stark reminder of the 198 who disappeared when the jungle was cleared. Many of those children had families happy to give them a home in the UK, but were refused entry. We were the country who proudly took in nearly 10,000 children from the Kindertransport; what happened to us?
No-one ever leaves home entirely willingly. Our home is our shelter, our safe place, where are family care for us. Who isn’t, on some level, glad to come home after a trip away? If we leave home it is because that place is no longer safe or healthy for us and that will always involve loss, whether it is the start of adult life, a move for work, or flight from a hostile regime. There is always grief in this.
Whatever your view on this country’s policy towards migrants, as a fellow human being, you can feel compassion. Winter is coming, Furness Refugee Support have put a call out for sleeping bags, tents, winter clothing, anything you can offer. If you can do nothing else, get into your attic, go through your wardrobe and send help. Send kindness.
And if you would like to understand more, then come and see my new play, Bones, developed in conjunction with The Royal Court and set on the sands of Morecambe Bay. It is a one act play, about a migrant mother and her teenage daughter, and will be followed by a discussion. It is being performed for one night only in Ulverston thanks to the generous involvement of two local actors, Ceri Hutton and Mathilda Kenny. We are doing what we can. Please spread the word and support us.
The Laurel and Hardy Museum, Brogden Street, Ulverston.
7.30pm Wednesday 10th October 2018
Entry free. All donations to Furness Refugee Support.
Dame Maggie Coro Smith
For me, the Coro in Ulverston has always been a magnificent Dame of a building; a relic of a more affluent past that hasn’t quite found its place in the 21st century. It’s the Maggie Smith of Ulverston’s architecture: stoic, with a wicked twinkle in the eye. I love the way it can transform itself into a modern gallery during PrintFest, then become a village hall for the WI events and school concerts. For all its grandeur, it has always offered a warm welcome. Ulverston doesn’t have a community focused arts centre, but such a creative town, with a love of festivals and quirky events, could certainly support one. Could this be the future for the Coro?
Do you know that the Coro now belongs to you and me? In 2016 the local community took control of The Coro and the markets from SLDC and formed Ulverston Community Enterprises (UCE). It has to make a profit to fund ongoing maintenance and management. We, as a community, are all individually responsible for making this work. We have 3 more years to prove ourselves.
Bar staff, box office, designing, stewarding, blogging, technical, admin, care-taking, are just some of the jobs carried out by volunteers, and the UCE board also needs people with intelligence, strategic awareness and skills in HR, IT and finance to join them in a voluntary capacity. It’s an exciting time to join in with a new Business Development Manager about to the team. For the Coro to thrive as a community hub and the markets to realise their full potential we need all hands on deck.
This is your chance, Ulverston, to shape the future. You can volunteer one night a week in the bar, or you can join the board. Or you can spread the word, encourage a neighbour or friend to take part, buy a ticket for an event, bring friends, buy a drink at the bar, tell people about it. Step inside. Keep the Coro alive. We want Dame Maggie Smith in her Downton glory presiding over our town, not Alan Bennett’s decrepit old Lady In The Van. It’s down to us. You and me. We can do this.
For further information go to: http://corohall.co.uk/jobs-and-volunteering/
23rd April 2018
The Words We Choose
What we say is seldom what we mean. When John, at the butcher’s politely asks, ‘How are you?’ he isn’t expecting a detailed breakdown of my physical and mental well being. The answer he’s looking for is a quick, ‘Fine,’ or something amusing that is easily dismissed. If I answer in an upbeat manner he’s reassured that, relatively speaking, all is well. If, however, I were to give a shrug, look at my feet and say, ‘Fine’, he would know I didn’t mean what I was saying and must be far from fine, because, if it was something minor, I’d brush it aside and return to it, if necessary, at a more appropriate time or with a more appropriate person. He would sense from my body language and general behaviour, that I was waiting for him to ask what was wrong. The clues are there to be read. Not all language is spoken.
This conflict, between what someone says and what they mean, is the essence of every script and novel I write. If my characters simply expressed what they needed clearly, there would be no story. If we all articulated our feelings and intentions in a direct manner, things would be far simpler, but how dull! Where would we be without nuance? We all love a puzzle, and working out what people really mean demands a certain level of enjoyable detective work.
As a writer, this conflict delights me, providing rich scenarios to explore: the angry teenager turning on his step-mother while really venting about something far deeper (Trust Me), the apparently harmless grandmother’s concern for her adult daughter which is sabotaging her life (The Accusation). In real life, misunderstandings and drama are things I seek to avoid, but I don’t have the same control over my protagonist as I do in a novel. As the mother or teenagers I am currently practising saying, ‘How can I help?’ instead of ‘You should…’ but isn’t easy. My children are right, I do prefer my fictional world, because there, I have the opportunity to go back and edit.
In Praise Of Our Transport Workers
I’ve been doing a lot of travelling around the country recently. The staff I’ve encountered at railway, tube and metro stations while making numerous connections and negotiating my way across a range of UK cities, have been, without exception, polite, patient, respectful and kind. The trains I’ve used have ranged from high speed palaces, with every conceivable form of technology available, to carriages that, quite frankly, might have once been pulled along by a horse, but the people staffing them or guiding me to them, have been nothing less than charming. They are clearly busy. They have often been working late at night, or very early in the morning, frequently in the bitter cold. Their good humour (and, at times, great wit) have punctuated some truly tedious journeys with much appreciated warmth. For the most part, my fellow travellers seem to be grateful and polite in return. Unless they’re drunk. Which, sadly, they increasingly seem to be. The Lancaster to Barrow route is a particularly horrendous example of this. When did we start to view a train journey as an opportunity to get drunk? People travel to and from the airport with cans and bottles piled on the table between them. Groups return from a night out – not teenagers, but middle aged men and women - behaving in the most disgusting, disrespectful way, intimidating other passengers, often frightening young people and children. What is the poor conductor meant to do in this situation? If they call the police, the train is held up and everyone complains, if they try and tackle the offensive behaviour they are abused. Railway staff are not bouncers. Is it time to ban alcohol on public transport? I like a glass of wine as much as the next person, but I can wait until I’ve arrived at my destination and stop drinking when I leave. Of course, this wouldn’t stop drunk people travelling, but it might set the bar a little higher. Our transport workers deserve more respect.
The Importance Of Friends
I’ve just had a fabulous weekend with a group of local friends in a rented house in Ambleside, on the shore of Windermere. It’s the sort of accommodation I could never afford with my family, but going out of season and splitting the cost between 10 in shared rooms, can offer up some good deals. We started as a book group when our children were small, but these days our own lives provide us with enough moral dilemmas, emotional crises and difficult choices to discuss. Life is hard as you approach middle age: managing teenage children, marriages under pressure, health issues, work stress, aging parents and extended family responsibilities are just a few of the challenges we’re all facing and this can become overwhelming. Between us we have a lot of experience and hard-earned wisdom. Within this group there will always be someone who will understand and have advice to offer. This weekend had no activities planned, but was simply about being with one another and allowing things to unfold. We walked in the woods, sat beside the lake, enjoyed the stars and winter sun and braved the rain, connecting with the world and one another. We left nourished, not only by food, but goodwill and kindness. We felt appreciated, loved and went back into the world stronger and more positive. People pay a fortune to escape their stressed, metropolitan lives and reconnect with themselves like this. They fly into Manchester or Glasgow and catch trains to the Lake District to spend weekends with absolute strangers in luxury accommodation in order to feel valued and get a sense of perspective. We have it on our doorstep. Take a look. You may not have a group of ten, but you can start with one or two. I encourage you to invest in this. Give it the time it needs. Treat your friendship group with respect. Make space. I promise you, in ten years you will see it’s been your lifeline.
An Alternative New Year Resolution
New year, new beginning. A time for resolutions, diets and dry January. Or not? The days are short and the nights long. It’s cold outside, and often wet or frosty. Christmas did what it’s supposed to do, and distracted us from the winter blues, but as soon as it’s over, we’re faced with the harsh reality. Work. Credit card bills. Cleaning. But do we have to be in such a hurry to move on after Christmas? All the bustle and stress of the build-up and then the negotiating of complicated family dynamics while confined in small spaces sharing news and viruses, takes it out of you. We need to hibernate in January. We yearn for it. January is for recovery. Hygge is a Danish word that suggests well-being and embrace. Something cosy, a psychological state of contentment. You’ve seen the books and newspaper features. It seems to come down to hot chocolate and wintery treats, but why not? It’s bleak out there. Let’s cuddle up by the fire and take the opportunity to slow down.
I know, you’re screaming at me, but I have to get back to work! I have to pay for all that excess! There’s so much to do! But this doesn’t need to be time consuming or cost anything at all. It’s a state of mind. It’s being kind to yourself. Everyone puts on a few pounds over the festive season. They will fall away slowly and, if they don’t, you can do something more dramatic when spring begins. Take your cue from nature. Now is a time to be dormant. A few brave snowdrops are peeping through and the odd hyacinth blooms on a window sill, in early February my neighbour’s camellia will burst into pink blush and the crocuses will follow. Spring creeps back slowly and so should we. By March there will be daffodils and a riot of tulips; the world will sing and you will be refreshed. Fetch a blanket, find that book you got for Christmas, and snuggle up, if only for half an hour, give yourself a break.
The life of an artist may appear frivolous to those in proper jobs, but while I can't deny it's a privilege to be able to pursue my creativity, it's hard work in its own way. We aren't blessed with a talent that allows us to simply produce beautiful things; we do have to work at it. It's a craft which requires planning, long hours of labour (which, if we dared to do the sums would probably put most artists far below the minimum wage) persistence in the face of criticism and rejection and the stamina to go back and do it better.
In the light of this, the white figures which appeared on Tank Square roundabout this month were a tremendous gift to Ulverston. They surprised and delighted so many people and judging by the response on social media, much further afield too. I'm sometimes asked, “What is the point of art?” That's a big question, but for me, part of the answer lies in the Loki sculptures. I believe art exists to surprise and delight. To show us the extraordinary in the ordinary and enhance the way we see the world.
I can appreciate the time and work that went into this gift. The hours of design, the physical making of the sculptures, the planning. How did Loki manage to get that entire installation onto the roundabout without anyone seeing? Setting the alarm for the middle of the night, creeping out of the house and carrying each figure across the street, one at a time. All that work for what reward? To surprise and delight. And it did.
We were saddened to see the what had taken so many hours to create, destroyed in a thoughtless moment and the sculptures dismantled, but the initial impact and appreciation remain in our memories. Thank you, Loki, whoever you are. You represent all that is quirky and unique about Ulverston. Long may you continue to surprise and delight.
20 Years In Ulverston
We've recently celebrated 20 years in Ulverston. In typical Ulverston fashion the party involved a fantastic range of talented locals singing, playing music and reading poetry, followed by the brilliant band, Dig A Pony and a buffet sourced entirely through the local butcher, bakers, green grocer, indoor market stalls and health food shop. I had almost given up on finding a venue when someone suggested The Laurel and Hardy Museum. Next door to The Roxy Cinema, this is a hidden gem with stage, cabaret seating, dance floor and bar, and Mark, who runs the place, couldn't have been more helpful. We had a wonderful night and it felt absolutely right to be celebrating in a quirky museum that exists simply because one man (Mark's grandfather, Bill Cubin) had a passion and made it happen. This museum receives no public funding or grant aid and survives entirely through earned income. It attracts around 10,000 visitors a year to Ulverston, who shop on our high street, eat in our cafes and drink in our pubs. It's another example of Ulverston's passion and Can Do attitude that gives us our festivals and regular, high quality community events, like Poem and A Pint, and the varied and growing array of music nights in the pubs that line our streets.
Among our guests were people I first met 20 years ago, writers I've come to know through literary events we've organised together, fellow parents from the school gate, but also more recent friends I've met through community initiatives like Ford Park. I remember the Kosovan refugees who arrived in coaches to live in the abandoned school buildings on Hart Street and I remember Ulverstonians heading to the Parish Rooms to learn basic Kosovan phrases in order to welcome our visitors into the town. That's another great thing about Ulverston: it doesn't sit brooding with its back to the outside world, taking care of its own, but holds its arms wide in welcome. There is a constant stream of new blood. Ulverston embraces offcomers and thrives from what they bring to it. Thank you, Ulverston, for welcoming me.
Celebrate Festival Volunteers
I LOVE the Dickensian Festival. The crowds of people that flood into the town, the stall holders and shop staff who produce imaginative and playful displays and work so hard all day with such good humour in often apalling weather conditions. The roasted chesnuts, the organ music, the blue and white canopies lining the streets, the hog roast, the buskers, the wonderful helter skelter (not just for kids!) and the mulled wine (best after the helter skelter). Gathering to see the parade arrive at the Market Cross, standing around, stamping our feet and rubbing our hands to keep warm, Garry Gifford taking the mickey out of local characters and pulling us all together in a spirit of camaraderie. (Remember the year of the fog when we had to imagine the fireworks we could hear?) Ulverston's festivals are unique, and to have so many is a privilege. It's all down to the volunteers. A lot of people assume our festivals are managed by the local council, with paid staff whose job it is to organise it all. The workload would certainly suggest that - the planning, the bookings, the health and safety, the licences, the logistics for coaches and the hosting of so many people - but that's not the case. The Dickensian Festival and other festivals in the year, only exist because local people give up their free time and do it for nothing. They head out of an evening, many of them after a full day's work, when the rest of us are settling down in front of the TV, and they commit themselves to hours of unpaid work and they have to raise the funds. They do it because they love the town. They do it for us. So this year, look out for these amazing people. They will be serving the mulled wine, herding the performers from one stage to another or frantically changing the plug on a string of fairy lights at the Market Cross. Take a moment. Tell them what the festival means to you.
Everything But A Hotel
A very good friend recently stayed overnight with our children while my husband and I slipped off to Kirkby Lonsdale for a break. One gift shop owner, on hearing we were from Ulverston, asked about a particular shop she'd heard of and asked if it was worth travelling over to take a look. She had never been to Ulverston and was surprised to hear that there was such a range of shops and cafes and that it could provide a wonderful day out. Is Ulverston Cumbria's best kept secret? Continuing on my way along Kirkby's quaint streets, I couldn't help comparing it with our little town. The internet tells us that “Kirkby Lonsdale retains much of its age-old appeal – with a 21st-century twist.” The same can be said of Ulverston. We have just as many quirky, independent gift shops, cobbled streets, beautiful buildings and, in addition to this, bookshops, a range of boutiques, a busy indoor market, a butcher, green grocer, fishmonger and all the major banks. What Ulverston has in its favour is all Kirkby Lonsdale's charm with a proper working backbone. A a Guardian journalist wrote in 2012, when identifying Ulverston as a place to move to: “Ulverston folk know how to make the best of life.” What we currently lack is a hotel like the one the one in Kirkby where I stayed, but the old brewery site with its beautiful buildings would make a perfect location with “age-old appeal and a 21st century twist.” Ulverston is larger than Kirkby, with investment growing fast. We all know about the Glaxo expansion, but in addition to that there are many small companies thriving with internet businesses as well as those with a presence on the high street. A beautifully designed hotel and conference centre would flourish in Ulverston. So far, our little town has hung onto its charm and the development has been sympathetic for the most part. As investment continues and the population grows, let's hang onto that charm, preserve and enhance it for future generations and secure the continued economic growth that will come from it.
Strangers and Trains
Trains are my favourite mode of transport. I often use my travel time to edit or plan a new story. I like to be able to daydream out of the window, talk to fellow passengers if we are in the mood, or get up and walk about. As a child I travelled to and from Poland by train, through forests of ghostly silver birches and my student summers were spent inter-railing around Europe. Once you are out of the heart of a city, there is something beautiful and calming about travelling by train. I have begun to take for granted the freedom that comes with having a train station linked to a main line within walking distance of my front door. I was reminded of this freedom a couple of weeks ago when I was rushing to catch the Lancaster train. I was late, as usual. I had run across town and had reached Trinity House, but with three minutes to get to my platform, I wasn't going to make it. At that moment the lights at the junction behind me changed and a red pick up truck turned the corner. I stuck out my thumb. The man behind the wheel pulled over. I yanked open the door, asked him to drop me at the top of the hill and without waiting for an answer, jumped in. He was kind enough to drive me right to the station. I was in such a hurry I forgot to ask his name, but hopefully he, or someone he told the story to, will read this, and my thanks will get back to him. I returned much later that night, on the last train and walked through Ulverston, enjoying the dark, crisp quiet. In London I would have had to order a taxi or arranged to be picked up. How fortunate I am to live in here, where I have the freedom to come and go on foot, alone, at any time of night, where I can flag down a stranger in a car and take a risk.
Can We Cope With Costa?
When it was first mentioned that Costa would be opening a coffee shop in Ulverston, I wasn't too worried. We have enough good cafes in the town for this not to create any problems, and, sure enough, they appear to have kept their custom while Costa have carved their own niche. Each Ulverston cafe has its own unique identity and we all have our favourites. Some are better for tea, some have fires perfect for a winter day, others have beautiful garden views. Cafes that are staffed with the cheapest labour seldom survive in a small town. A good cafe has its own personality and when the cafe owner interacts with the customers you can really tell the difference, which is the key to their success.
Lately, I've struggled to get a good, strong cup of coffee in Ulverston town centre. I like rich coffee with an intense flavour. A flat white usually does the trick. A cafetiere doesn't work for me, so I look for a proper coffee machine. But recently I've ordered a flat white alongside a latte, in one or two of my favourite cafes, and been unable to tell the diffference, apart from the shape of the cup. It wasn't always like this. What's happened?
If I'm in Lancaster I always pop into The Hall for the perfect cup of coffee. Here a cappuccino is served in a small cup, the size of a tea cup (not a soup bowl). A shot of coffee topped with gently frothed milk (not a whipped tower). Proper coffee, not milky soup with a dash of colour. Delicious.
So back to Ulverston. We used to offer a choice of venues to enjoy a good cup of coffee, whatever your preferred method. There are places catering for the a real tea connoisseur, but can anyone recommend somewhere for a fussy coffee fanatic? Our Ulverston cafes are delightful and quirky and long may they continue to be so, but is it time for a bit of barista re-training, or do I simply need to find the right cafe?
Fictionalising The Town
I have been working on a new novel. Once again, the story is set in Ulverston, but this time I feel the need to fictionalise the town. This has opened up some interesting opportunities and dilemmas. There are certain elements that will sell this book to an agent or publisher. A lot of commercial novels are set in London or in places Londoners will recognise. The closest we have to such a place is The Lake District. For many Southerners, The Lake District is Cumbria. It's been fun watching the excellent ITV drama, The A Word and seeing Broughton Village, Coniston and Hard Knott Pass, all jumbled together to create a composite Lakeland community, conveniently close to Manchester Hospital for the purposes of the plot. I'm hoping to remain more authentic. I may fail. You will be the judge of that if this novel ever sees the light of day. In the meantime, fictionalising Ulverston has allowed me to make a few changes. I moved it away from the bay and Hoad Hill, which I felt I'd written about enough. I needed a focal point of natural beauty, but I didn't want to go as far as inventing another lake, so I moved Ulverston to Urswick and created a town on the bank of the tarn, calling it Tarnside. I had to lose things, but here is what I kept: I kept the High School that binds the community together, generation after generation. I kept the cobbled streets, the irregular slate roofs and ice-cream colour facades. I kept Ford Park, though it has another name and looks a little different. I kept the festivals, all of them, and created the post of Festivals Co-ordinator for my protagonist ( a post I hope we will one day see). I kept the market and created a market square to replace the market cross; a place where the community gathers to celebrate and a kind of magic happens. I hope, what I've kept is its Ulverston's unique soul. Which reminds me, I need to go back and weave in a fictionalised Loki...
Here Comes Summer!
We had summer last week, with temperatures higher than London and the South East at one point. How often does that happen? We went from scarves and hats in the hail to flip flops and shorts in the space of a few days. That's Cumbrian weather for you.
I love this time of year. Day by day the gardens and parks are coloured in with new buds unfolding. The air is heady with beginnings. It's a time of promise. All the summer to come! We are filled with hope.
The character of those living in Cumbria is shaped by the weather. There is no escaping it. In winter we hunker down to avoid the cold, wet and wind, retreating to log fires, hot food, home and hearth, but in summer it's anybody's guess what the weather will do. Temperatures can match those on the Mediterranean some days (rarely, I admit!) and plummet to winter cold just as easily. We have to be adaptable and spontaneous. If we want to enjoy a Cumbrian summer we have to be ready. If the forecast for the weekend is clear and bright, we drop everything. On summer Sundays, when the sun shines we load the car with camping chairs, barbecue, hammock and jelly shoes and are off to Coniston before the church bells have stopped ringing, because this may be the only day of summer and we need to grab it while we can. We throw ourselves at the warm weather whenever we are given the opportunity. At the lake our neighbours and friends are all doing the same.
What I find most endearing is that after that one day of summer, skin tingling pink, muscles eased, we assume it's going to continue. The deck chairs are left outside, the open skylights forgotten, because tomorrow will surely be the same? It's our indefatigable optimism in the face of the grey reality year on year, that I admire. We still cling to the memory of the summer of '95, when that optimism was repaid and the sun shone day after day. Who knows, maybe it will happen again?
A Cumbrian Welcome
I was at the Jools Holland gig in Cartmel over the bank holiday weekend. What a treat! The sun shining, picnics spread out on the grass, the stage with its magnificent Cumbrian backdrop, Ruby Turner (now OBE!) in all her gutsy glory. A perfect day.
There was a fabulous, welcoming atmosphere. The parking was free. There was food and drink available to buy but picnics were encouraged. There was a huge crowd in the open air arena, but we were not taken advantage of.
One of the support acts was Galia Arad, a fine New York singer/songwriter. A city girl, she'd assumed that she'd be able to hop in a taxi at Cark station to take her to the race-course. When she stepped off the train she was disappointed to see that there was no taxi rank and nothing resembling a taxi, not even a car from which she could hitch a lift. So she proceeded to walk "with a heavy guitar and a heavy heart" in the direction of Cartmel.
A similar thing happened to me during my first weeks in Ulverston. I wasn't expecting a taxi rank, but I had seen taxis occasionally, so presumed I would be able to phone one. I went to the phone box (that's how long ago this was!) and called the number listed. After some time a woman answered, sounding a little flustered. "Have you booked?" I explained that I hadn't, but I was happy to wait. She gave a heavy sigh, as if this was a terrible inconvenience. "You're best walking," she snapped, irritably, "He's feeding his pidgeons," and prompty hung up.
Galia's story ended more positively. She was less than a hundred yards from the station when a bus pulled over and told her to jump aboard. She was delivered straight to the race course. This New York visitor was utterly chamed by this small gesture of kindness from our local community. Her memory of the event has been enhanced by it. She was made to feel welcome. We're good at that here.
Exciting news! That novel I told you I was writing, set in a fictionalised version of Ulverston, will be published next autumn! I've secured a two book deal forTrust Me and The Accusation, both psychological thrillers set in the South Cumbrian market town of Tarnside.
The location was one of the aspects of the novel everyone particularly liked. There are the obvious references to Coniston and Windermere to please the London folk and help them understand where it's all happening, but Tarnside itself is an amalgam of Ulverston and Great Urswick. It has market square instead of a market cross, a tarn instead of Hoad Hill, but it shares Ulverston's festivals and community park and (I hope) captures the unique essence of the place.
I set my Radio 4 drama, The Treehouse firmly in Ulverston, referencing specific places: Church Walk School, Ulverston Victoria, the market and train station and Hoad Hill. and persuaded the BBC to record at all these venues for authentic sound effects. My stage play, Quicksand had key scenes taking place on the shore of the bay and at the base of the Hoad monument. I want to set all my stories here, but when I set out to write this novel I felt the need to be more cautious. I want to celebrate Ulverston, and I want to share it, but I also feel the need to protect it. My characters and scenarios are fictional and while there is a strong love story (though not often a romantic one) at the heart of everything I write, my novels are thrillers and peopled by some unpleasant individuals. There are also comic characters and people who don't behave well and I wouldn't want readers to assume they were based on anyone in particular or even existed at all. So I created Tarnside, which embraces all that is wonderful about Ulverston while allowing me to make things up, but when people ask if it really exists, I shall tell them it's based on my home town and sit back a little smugly as I watch them turn green with envy.
What's In A Name?
I have always found Ulverston to be a cosmopolitan town. I suspect that's got a lot to do with the industry around here and the steady influx from other parts of the country and the world, but it's also to do with the welcoming nature of the people. I'm an off-comer and my mother was a migrant. In the last twenty years I've built a family, a home and a career in Ulverston. I have a strong network of friends that continues to grow, good relationships with my neighbours and know most of the shop-keepers up and down the high street well enough to enquire about their families. My Polishness is an accepted and celebrated part of who I am.
I have a foreign name. The pronunciation isn't obvious, but it's never caused me a problem here. People tend to remember me because of my name. They comment on the fact that it's unusual and ask where it comes from. Sometimes I have to spell it and people might pronounce it differently, but I don't mind. I was named after grandfather's sister, a very dear aunt and I'm proud to carry her name.
Recently, I was asked if I would mind changing it to something similar, but more English, such as Zoe. I was in London, having lunch with people who will be working hard to sell my novel. The fact that I have a name that is difficult to pronounce may affect sales. I understand that commercial decisions sometimes need to be brutal and I am, by nature, a creature of compromise, but this felt uncomfortable. I have nothing against the name Zoe, but it isn't my name and I don't want someone else's name on the cover of my book.
It was Ulverston that came to my rescue. How would Ulverston feel if I changed my name? Who would come to the book launch? Who would care? Zosia Wand and her novel are rooted in the Ulverston community. If Ulverston can cope with Zosia, I'm pretty sure London can. They agreed. So Zosia Wand of Ulverston it is.
Shopping Without Dropping
To say that Christmas shopping can be stressful is an understatement. So, how can we make it a more enjoyable experience? With an event in Liverpool, we thought we’d stay over and shop on Sunday. Weaving our way between hundreds of Santas, who were racing through the city streets to raise money for charity, we dodged the snow machine, admired the giant, silver reindeer and made our way to the big stores, with their enticing Christmas displays. Two hours later, having managed just three shops, we were spent. Dizzy and slightly nauseated by the flashing lights, the scented products and the Christmas music, overwhelmed by the long queues and sheer volume of stuff, we escaped back to the car to head home.
In the past, I’ve made gifts and enjoyed doing that. I’m no seamstress (I can barely thread my sewing machine) but I began with table cloths (a hemmed length of fabric - any idiot can do it) progressed to making brightly coloured bunting (triangles of fabric attached to a length of bias binding) and the occasional (very basic) apron. These were all produced with considerably more love than skill, but they were fun to do and resulted in unique, personal gifts which seemed to be appreciated.
But it’s not easy to come up with ideas or create the time and space to implement them and, driving up the M6, I began to panic. Nature hasn’t been on my side, either. Usually I forage for Elderberries in the autumn and have a crop of blackcurrants that allow me to concoct cordials and flavoured vodkas, but this year the birds got their first.
But this is where Ulverston comes into its own, with a smaller, more manageable selection of outlets and products to choose from. Festive bustle without the excess. Shops staffed by people you recognise. Gifts sourced locally, supporting local businesses and crafts people. Gifts that mean something. Not necessarily the bargains you might find on line or in the city, not home-made, maybe, but home-sourced. That will do.
On Reviews And Manners
Technology is a marvelous thing and it’s developing at a rate that can be difficult to keep pace with. Too fast, perhaps, for the etiquette required to accompany it. We’re beginning to appreciate that mobile phones need to be turned off at particular times and it’s generally accepted that sending a text while talking to someone is rude, but we still have a long way to go.
I’ve been looking at reviews recently. With so much for sale online, reviews are a quick and easy way to make a decision between products. Everyone and anyone can be a reviewer now. This places us in a powerful position. We have the freedom to express our opinion publically, anonymously, with no face to face interaction with the person whose services or product we’re reviewing. There is a wonderful, liberating freedom to this, but with freedom comes responsibility.
What people say, face to face, is very different from what can be written, anonymously, in the heat of the moment. How many of us, scouring Trip Advisor for reviews of restaurants or hotels have dismissed the lengthy tirades, no longer trusting the reviewer to provide a coherent or reliable point of view? These angry individuals reveal more about themselves than they do the product they are reviewing. I pay attention to reviews written by someone who sounds reasonable, considered and fair. Criticisms made politely carry weight and are generally helpful. Tirades are not.
When we review anything online, it might be worth considering the impact of our words. As we write, it might be wise pause and ask ourselves: “Would I say this to someone, in this way, to their face?” When we type a review, we’re not looking into a person’s eyes and we’re unable to measure the human response to what we’re saying. We’re also leaving the individual we’re targeting with no right to interrupt or reply. Power can be dangerously intoxicating. Let’s tread carefully. We’re all entitled to our opinion, but there’s no need to forget our manners.
My Book Group: So Much More Than Books
I have been part of my book group for over ten years. What pulls us together is a love of stories. When you talk about stories you’re really talking about life. Stories are the way we make sense of the world. It’s through stories that we explore our own experiences, our history, our families, our friends. When discussing a story, be it a book, a TV drama, a news item or piece of local gossip, we are really talking about people. Characters. Journeys. Questions. The business of life. A book group isn’t about literary criticism, it’s about learning how to live.
It was books that bound us together and allowed us to find unexpected common ground. Within the safety of our book group we can talk openly. We can get it wrong. We can voice an unpopular opinion and work it out for ourselves. We can change our minds. We can expand our horizons. And we can explore dangerous territory. We are not alone. We do not have to be afraid. We are not judged.
My book group has become a safety net and support system. When I had to spend an entire school summer break in and out of hospital, it was my book group who rallied round to provide childcare. When any of us are feeling low or worried, it’s the book group who offer sympathy, advice, or simply a shared, pot luck dinner. Once a year we escape for a weekend somewhere just far enough away to allow us to be off duty as parents and connect as the girls we all once were. The girls we’ve discovered inside one another. The girls those stories have teased out.
Book groups are born when readers meet readers. The Reading Room, Ulverston, is open to lovers of stories on the last Wednesday of the month from 8pm – 9.30pm. Drop in. Share your reading recommendations, browse the books on the shelves. Who knows, you might connect with someone over a story and begin a group of your own. See what happens.
Less Is More
Why didn’t those drivers pulled up at traffic lights in London, help the screaming acid attack victim? I experienced a similar disinclination to help in a relatively trivial incident last week when I got a puncture driving down the side of Windermere and, for various, complicated reasons, had to flag down assistance. One couple, hurrying to an appointment, were desperately apologetic and I waved them on, happy to wait for someone less pressed for time, but what followed was a series of drivers, all desperate to avoid me, shaking their heads through closed windows. One simply said, “No” and drove off in his shiny BMW. I was left at the side of the road feeling a little grubby, as if I’d done something wrong. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to be rejected like this when in terrible pain and frightened. Why such hostile suspicion?
Eventually, a delightful couple pulled over. Is it significant that they weren’t in a fancy car? They didn’t look at me as if I was someone to fear. They didn’t see a potential threat – a decoy for someone who might attack them or steal their vehicle - just an ordinary woman in difficulty and they stopped to see what they could do. They couldn’t help practically (though they tried very hard!) but their kindness made all the difference.
Why is it, that at times of difficulty, it’s often those who have the least who give the most? As we become more affluent, do we become more fearful of other people? Perhaps we’re afraid when we have more to lose. But in focusing on protecting our assets we lose something far more valuable. Community is about pulling together, trusting one another, being part of something bigger. It feels good. If you’re part of a community there’s no need to be afraid because you’re not alone.
I’ve always told my daughters to knock on the nearest door if they’re in trouble and shout for help. Now I wonder if they were scared, if they were shouting, would that door would be opened?
The issue of trust runs through my novel on many levels and it’s something I’ve been considering a lot in the wake of recent events. Ulverston Reads is a local initiative. No funding involved, just good will and donations. The first project involves Reading Nooks at key locations throughout the town. A cushion on a chair or bench, a selection of books which can be borrowed or swapped. We may be left with a series of empty boxes, but I believe in trust. It brings out the best in people. Who hasn’t been delighted by the sight of a sign offering free range eggs with an honesty box by the side of the road? Or benefited from parcels left outside the house when they weren’t home to answer the door? The ex offender selling cleaning products on my doorstep may have been a con artist, but it felt good to trust him. The shop assistant who allowed me to return and pay later when I’d forgotten my purse probably felt the same. To offer our trust we have to assume the best of people. Sometimes that trust is misplaced. That’s the risk we take. The parents who allowed their fledgling teenagers to attend that concert in Manchester trusted the world to be safe enough for them to make their maiden flights. Trust on your own behalf is difficult enough; trusting on behalf of the child you love deeply, is more difficult still. But where are we without trust? If we believe everyone to be a predator, does that make us safer? If we warn our children that any stranger is a threat, who do they go to for help in an emergency when we are not there? The majority of people are honest, decent and kind. Extraordinary stories make news; ordinary stories of everyday trust do not, but they are important. They provide a context. They give us hope.
Stress Is Not The Key To Success
“Nothing matters very much and most things don't matter at all.” Arthur Balfour
I am going to speak the unspeakable and say to any young person sitting an exam this summer, ignore the burden of expectation weighing upon your shoulders. Relax. IT DOESN’T MATTER IF YOU FAIL. Don’t listen to all that nonsense I’ve heard recently, delivered by people who really should know better. Stress is not a measure of commitment. It absolutely should not be a part of life when you are a teenager.
What are we doing to our children? Defining their success in terms of a handful of results graded in letters, numbers or colours that are becoming increasingly muddled and incomprehensible. Here is my counter message: What matters is what is inside your head and your heart and no-one can ever take that away from you.
I failed my French GCSE first time. I took English, History and Maths A levels. I was warned against Maths and failed, as expected. Do I regret studying it? No. It wasn’t easy, but I liked it and it introduced me to friends I am still in contact with today. I had to defer a year before going to University and study an alternative subject to achieve the required grade, which I did by correspondence course in 4 months. I got a job, travelled and arrived at Uni an independent, mature young woman who relished her degree. Failing may be a problem for the school, so the pressure for pupils to pass is enormous. There are many fine teachers out there working phenomenally hard to get the required results. I salute them, but pupils need a counterbalance to this pressure. Encouragement is important, but so is reassurance. If you persist, you will succeed in the goals you set yourself. They may not necessarily chime with the targets set by others, but this is your life. Do your best. If that isn’t enough, try again. Don’t be afraid of failure; it’s a step towards success. Strive for a happy life, which is not measured by academic achievement, money or status, but contentment and balance. Be kind to yourself and others, keep moving towards your dreams. All will be well.
Stepping Into The Past
We were invited to a welcome party in our old house in Ulverston last week. I wasn't sure how I'd feel, walking into those memories. The past is something we carry with us as we move forward, something to draw on in memories, but not something I necessarily want to hold onto. My childhood memories of summers in Poland bear no relation to the country I've visited in recent years. The characters who peopled my world, all dead now, many of the places I played either derelict or demolished and built over. The world I loved exists only inside my head. Memories are precious, but attempting to relive them can be dangerous.
As I stepped inside the front door, the tiles I uncovered that first day, twenty years ago, are still dazzling, their colours picked out in the blue woodwork we painted and the cinnamon carpet we had laid on the stairs with the little inheritance left by my dad. The floors we sanded and oiled, the walls we painted, the rooms where our babies slept in their cots, the garden we planted, where a shrub has grown into a tree; it's all there, even the marks on the door frame where we recorded each daughter's height on her birthday. We did love that house well, and our love built a home, a family, within those walls. That love has seeped into the knots in the floor boards, gathered in the folds of the curtains that still hang either side of the windows in the room where we slept. It has settled between the slate steps we built down into the little back yard where we once sat in the morning sun and drank our coffee, and it's wound its way around the rambling rose over the garden gate. It remains, the trace of who we were, and who we are now has grown from there. It felt good to be back. I felt proud. We are part of the history of that house, of this town. We've earned our place.
The final draft of my novel, Trust Me has gone to the copy editor whose job it is to meticulously checks details - Was that a Bank Holiday? Are the names consistent? What a great job. I remember being awestruck, at at the age of 18, on meeting a Canadian who wrote radio jingles for a living. He was the person I'd met who delighted in their job. I've always loved stories and my brother was drawing cartoons from the time he could hold a pencil, but no-one took us seriously. I wanted to write and work in the theatre, but was told to study literature and become a teacher or journalist, something with a regular income that guaranteed security.
When you're young, if you're fortunate enough not to have responsibilities for other people, you can do any job while continuing to pursue your passion. Too many of us are afraid to take a risk because the dream may never be realised, but it doesn't have to be that way; my brother and I are proof of that. We took very different routes and neither of us make a lot of money, but we love what we do. He worked hard for a pittance, grabbing any opportunity, no matter how bad the money was, illustrating other people's work until he got the reviews and necessary backing to produce his own graphic novels. I worked in community arts on half the salary my friends were earning and eventually arrived in Ulverston to manage the Lantern House lottery bid. I was 30 when I found the courage to return to my dream, but I'd gathered useful fundraising and project management skills along the way. Within a year I was writing and working part-time. It took 5 years to get my first radio play commissioned and has taken 20 years and 6 near misses to get this novel published, but I'm there. You can have the life you want with tenacity, compromise and patience. We must encourage our children to dream big. Give them support. If you persist you will succeed. Tell them.
10th January 2017
I love Christmas. I loathe January and I loath February even more. Bill Bryson, in Notes From A Small Island, wrote about Morecambe that it was like living under tupperware. That image returns to me every winter when there is day after gloomy day and the sun just can't break through. I long for some almighty, God-like figure to reach down and peel back the plastic lid. allowing us a glimpse of blue sky and sunshine. It does happen. Last winter it happened quite a lot, but still not enough for me. I can feel my skin yearning for warmth and I resent the clouds that deny us our sunshine. It makes it worse,somehow, the knowledge that the sun is burning bright in the sky, we just can't see or feel it. I gravitate towards the weakest rays, stand by windows, under skylights, spend as much time as I can outdoors, but it's a thirst that can't be quenched over a Cumbrian winter.
There are compensations: fairy lights and candles and fires, and that glorious view out across the bay. I like the winter dusk. What a wonderful word that is. Ulverston is dusky in winter; blue-grey slate and cobbles, the colour of an evening sky. Ulverston in winter is the hazy light of a streetlamp in the fog, damp leaves, slippery underfoot, the honeyed lights of shop window displays. It is meat and potato pie steaming in a paper bag, and children in bright wellies splashing through puddles, sticky mud squelching, feet slipping and sliding struggling to get a grip up the sodden grass of Back Hoad. It is the view across the bay in monochrome, a fingernail moon, white breath spelling secrets in the air. It is chimney smoke, the acrid stink of muck hanging over the streets, mornings that begin too soon in the dark and days that end abruptly. But there is always the amaryllis on my neighbour's window sill, rising slowly from its protruding bulb, lengthening, day by day, stretching skywards, eternally optimistic, and I know that when it finally erupts in a crimson trumpet it will herald another new beginning, hope, a perfect Ulverston spring.