Sunday, 17 January 2016

Resolving to write

Photo "Notebook and Pens" by artur84 courtesy of

I've taken a peek at just some of the new year resolutions for writers that abound on the internet, notably expressed in writing blogs.  I do the same every year, and every year I resolve to: write more, make time for writing; clear a writing space; submit work to publication or competition etc, etc. etc.  I even go so far as to write these down at the front of my diary or on a wall calendar as if giving them a visual presence will make them more real.  

Photo "Book Signing" by Bill Longshaw" courtesy of

These writers' resolutions are added to the usual list of eat healthily, get more exercise, lose my temper less often, get a new job - you know, the usual "new year new start" stuff.  And then they get abandoned just as quickly.  A bit like the "get your bikini body back" resolution, which I think I write down annually as a matter of habit or just for a laugh - hell, I haven't had one of those since I was 19!

So without a plan, without a set of specific goals that can be measured against achievements, how on earth can I possibly develop as a writer?  Am I flying in the face of all the wisdom expounded vociferously by all the millions of bloggers on the internet?  

Shortly before Christmas, I was interviewed by The Gibraltar Chronicle when they wrote up a review of my book of poems "Of Love and Shadows".  I enjoy waxing lyrical about my work - it is what I know best, after all.  But I was stumped right at the start of the interview.

"Why do you write?" came the question.  I babbled an answer which made little sense and probably was not right.  I don't know why I write.  I just have to. I wonder whether it might be some form of ego trip, some way of saying "hey, listen to me, I have something important to say"  in which case it would be a voice lost in the wilderness, because there are millions of people doing the same.  

I have been making up stories for years, since I was a little girl.  As a teenager i wrote my angst-ridden poems during my O-level exams (Latin.s translations of the Aeneid just could not grip my attention!).  As a working parent, I wrote in the dead hours of the night in between nappy changes and breast feeding. Okay, so much of it is unpublishable drivel, but I have to do it.  I find myself short-tempered and irritable if I don't.

Photo by photoraidz courtesy of

George Orwell said, "Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand."

That goes some way to describe that feeling.  Perhaps artists feel the same way about their painting or sculpture.  My grandmother was a seamstress.  Show her a bit of cloth and she'd make something out of it.  She couldn't stop herself.  A similar trait - although possibly more useful than mine.

Which leads me to conclude that this year, this 2016 which has not got off to the happiest of starts (Alan Rickman and David Bowie in one week is a huge blow to the creative world), is the year that I stop fretting about what and when and where work is published, and just write.  Just for the hell of it.  Just because I love it. And just because I can.

Photo "Book Heart" by sattva courtesy of

Friday, 4 December 2015


Marcos Moreno
Photo taken from Marcos Moreno's post in Timeline Photos

Today I walked through Casemates almost in tears.  I am rarely given to displays of emotion, public or otherwise, neither am I given to demonstrations of sentimentality.  If tears are going to turn up they usually  do so at certain times of the month and are associated with bouts of hormone-induced rage.

But today I had a browse around the exhibition at the Gustavo Bacarisas Exhibition Gallery at Casemates Square, Gibraltar, and the stark reality of human suffering portrayed by the images hung on its otherwise bare walls were intensely moving.

SOS is an exhibition by La Linea photographer Marcos Moreno, documenting the day to day trials of existence and survival for the people who seek a new life in Europe by crossing as best they can the Straits of Gibraltar, people fleeing terror and crisis and debilitating poverty, war, persecution and endless suffering at home.  The exhibition has been organised by the JM Foundation.  There is no entry fee, only donations are requested,  all of which go to the various JM Foundation projects working to improve the living conditions and opportunities for migrants from North Africa.  Quoted in local Campo de Gibraltar newspaper "La Verdad", Moreno claims to want to use his images of the dramatic truth of the lives these migrants endure in order to draw public attention to their plight and perhaps that way contribute towards helping improve their lives.  In this exhibition, he goes beyond depicting just those joyful moments of rescue to demonstrating the hardships endured by those who hide in caves in the mountains of Morocco to wait for passage on a flimsy dingy and row across what are frequently treacherous waters, narrow though the strip of sea dividing North Africa and Europe might be.

Photo from Marcos Moreno's post in Timeline Photos
The silence of the gallery, where only the echoes of my slow footsteps could be heard, added to the poignancy of the images: men curled in blankets on the edge of plastic, makeshift shelters, exhaustion etched on their faces, eyes hollow from the traumas they have witnessed; women too shattered to weep; children reaching out to grasp the lifeline thrown at them by the Red Cross workers; a single Guardia Civil, masked in case of contamination, keeping a surly distance from these poor souls who have nothing left but their skinny, tortured selves.  There are bony men hunkered down amidst dirt and litter to try and eke out some rest, perhaps some food if they have been able to get hold of some.

At the centre of the floor of the first room there is a white grave, in its hollow some earth, by the headstone, a blanket is draped in haphazard folds as if the dead had awoken and left in a hurry.  Perhaps the grave marks the spot where lie the remains of someone who at least had received a burial.  This grave is the model of an image that hangs just behind it; the same grave, but in the image, curled in his blanket lies a young man, lost in sleep, because lying in someone else's grave is somehow safer, more sheltered, than another night on the streets.

There are images depicting joy too: rescues at sea, hot food doled out to the starving; a man throwing his arms up perhaps in supplication, perhaps in thanks to his rescuers; a rescue worker playing in an impromptu game with some delighted children.  It was that image, I think, that moment of emotional rescue where a child became a child again, that triggered the tears.

A final image; exhausted faces behind bars.  Because that is how we, in Europe, fat on fast food and Christmas cheer, treat those fleeing war and persecution, forgetting how our own grandparents fled persecution across our own continent.  

I left the Gallery a bit wiser as to the plight of refugees, a little guilty at my own complacency and hugely angry at the pathetic circling round the nub of the problem by our elected and well-paid politicians.

Surviving in a cave waiting for the next stage in the journey - an image from Marcos Moreno's SOS exhibition from Marcos Moreno's post in Timeline Photos

Outdoors, my eyes smarted - not from the emotion, but from the red and white and tinsel-laden tackiness of the commercial world around me.  The lump in my throat could not have stomached a single mince pie.  I put the cost of it and more into the donation box instead.  I'm not sure what else to do, but at least I know what is happening, and I can tell as many as will read this.  And they can put their bit into improving life for these poor scraps of humanity, in the collection box and at the ballot box.  And I have Marcos Moreno to thank for that.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Fish Salters

Photo "Fishing Boats" by samuieblue courtesy of

I have been asked by a number of people recently, not all in town, in the country or indeed in the same continent, so I think that  posting here may help all of them read it.

I am tremendously proud to have won the first prize at this year's Gibraltar Autumn Festival Poetry Competition with a poem which is part of a collection that I am writing inspired by the sea.  Asked by  a local journalist what inspired the poem, I explained it was the sight of elderly ladies, fishwives I'll call them, sitting by barrels of fish on a beach salting the flying fish caught earlier that morning by the fishermen now drying their nets on the sand.  Behind them, hanging on what looked like washing lines strung with silver, the salted fish fluttered in the sea breeze, much as they tried to do when death came to claim them.  The image stayed with me and burst out of my pen one August afternoon.

Fish Salters

They beat at the salt with their hands;
Broad hands, working hands
With skin brown and creased like toasted walnuts
And knotted with straining veins,
And they pull and pat and knife and slice,
Fingers scraping till they bleed,
At silver scales that stick
To the aprons they spread across their skirts;
Black and grey and dull brown cloth stretched across
Milk white thighs clamped closed
Until their fishermen sail home.

They sing their old songs while they
Split and they gut and they bone
The fish that flew today, that
Fell prey to that one wish
To soar through the blue where sky skims waves,
To feel the sun on their sea soaked skins
For just that once.  Once was enough.
Now they flutter silently on lines
Stretched across the sand, split and salted,
Staring sightlessly at a bleached summer shoreline.

The fishwives sing and laugh, and chatter
About the old days when their mothers
Bustled at the huddle of homes
They made their own at the foot of a mountain
Where the sea flicked a serpentine tongue
At the curve of a bay,
And where their men beached their boats
And scoffed at the surf sirens
Who screamed their names out in storms,
And mocked the stone demons,
Who in the winter tempests hurled
Boulders from the mountaintops.

They sing and they clap and the
Old men knot their nets and beam their
Toothless grins at little girls
Who dance in the sand, hand in hand,
Skirts fluttering like coloured flags,

Like flying fish, one second in the sun.

A fest of literature

I have had a hugely busy weekend, happy as a pig in muck, wallowing in books and writing and listening to a multitude of writers talking about their lives, work, interests, and, of course, their books.  The third Gibraltar Literary Festival took place this weekend just gone (12th to 15th November 2015) and now that the dust is settling and I have started to get some sleep again, I wanted to reflect on the event overall.

That as a literary festival it was a success cannot be denied.  Gibraltar was full to bursting with the literati, and with those who either enjoy this type of event or were particularly interested in the well-known speakers.  There were dinners, demos by cookery writers, serious talks, light-hearted talks, interviews with local writers, a multi-denominational service and a posh, I daresay, affair at the Governor's Palace involving fine dining.

Asked by Mum on the Rock, the website to which I contribute regular features, to attend some of the events on a press pass, I eagerly set out, notebook in hand.  There were quite a number of events, some running concurrently and I know I missed out on some I would have liked to have seen.  But I guess that is always the secret of a successful event: to leave people wanting it not to end.

Click below to visit and browse, a variety of features and information, it is well worth a visit, whether you're a mum, dad, uncle, aunt, granny, grandad.........on Gibraltar or anywhere in the world:

Mum on the Rock

I would be hard put to identify my favourite event or my favourite speaker.  Dame Esther Rantzen, a consummate professional, a wonderful raconteuse with a ready wit did not disappoint and the hour I spent listening to her speaking of her days at the BBC, her work with Childline and more recently with Silverline, sped past leaving me in greater admiration of her than I already was - and she has always been a favourite celeb of mine.

Photograph courtesy of Government of Gibraltar via

On a more serious note, my festival opened with Dan Jones' talk on the Magna Carta and its legacy, touching on his other works and of particular interest to me, because I like the more grimy realism of social history, his latest book on a year in the life of Plantagenet England.  Discussing one of my favourite periods in English history, Jones sat in a wooden chair in the King's Chapel facing the congregation and under the watchful eye of some glorious king frowning down on him from his stained glass grandeur daring him to talk dark things of his predecessor, bad King John, or even talk of the revolt of the people, or rather, the barons - the only people powerful enough to stand up to the king.  Dry though medieval history can appear to some, with Paul Blezard's skilled steering, Jones took a candle to the dark pages of history and illuminated them in such an entertaining way I bought two of his books and asked him to sign them before I hurried on to the next event and venue.  A charming writer, Jones let me in on the fact that his inspiration for this period in history were his wonderful tutors at Cambridge.  In contrast, I think my fascination started in the vaulted aisles of Canterbury Cathedral on many a school trip; I went to school in Kent and Canterbury must have been an easy reach for history teachers.

Dan Jones' Magna Carta

That same afternoon, I returned to the King's Chapel twice more.  It is a beautiful, historic little building, and a rather nice venue, were it not for the poor acoustics.  Organisers please note:  even those of us that are not hard of hearing struggled from time to time to understand the wonderful words of John Carlin about Nelson Mandela and of James Harkin about niche products in the corporate worlds and the breakdown of the mainstream in the world of politics.

John Carlin gave an entertaining, and entirely inspiring talk about Nelson Mandela the man.  I had expected a dry recounting of what, when, where, with possibly a few who's and a why or two thrown in.  But instead I was entertained with a number of anecdotes and a general recounting of Carlin's meetings with Mandela and what he made of this great leader.  A quiet, respectful man of integrity, vision, focus and ultimate humanity is the impression I came away with, and I think perhaps some of that might have rubbed off on Carlin because his talk was touched sublimely with a degree of humility, which is how I imagine I would feel were I ever to have had the privilege of meeting Mandela.

John Carlin's Knowing Mandela

James Harkin I have to say I knew nothing about (sorry James), but I was on  press pass for Mum on the Rock, so I sat quietly with the intention of giving the talk my full attention.  Actually, the hour or so flew by and I was fascinated.  So much so that although I couldn't hang around to buy the books, I absolutely will buy them.  While I was interested in the whole idea of niche markets and specialisms beating the giant corporates, I found myself far more fascinated in the idea of the breakdown of the mainstream in terms of politics and what this might mean to society.  He also spoke about how this might colour the world's response to acts of violence from extremists, also fascinating.  Hours later, Paris exploded with horrifying casualties.  I must read Harkin thoroughly.  I understand he spoke on Saturday morning about the Arab Spring.  I wish I could have gone, but I am glad to have learnt about his work and will track this down.

James Harkin's "Niche"

Of the local authors, I attended Alice Mascarenhas' interview with Humbert Hernandez.  Poet, dramatist, author and social activist, this former teacher talked in part about his writing and his inspiration, reciting two very powerful poems.  The first was a reaction to what the press terms the migrant crisis, and what I can only call the crisis for migrants.  It painted a picture of the floating body of a drowned child and reminded listeners that those innocent deaths must surely be on all our consciences as we (read Europe) try to avoid taking a stance.  The second was so moving; it told of a woman stoned for the apparent sin of being raped, the final stone of a savage sentence thrown by her own father.  It was a harsh and angry poem, not sparing any sensitivities.  Cruelty and needless death cannot be painted over in watercolours, but can only be stained by blood.  A preface to the horrors on my TV screen later that night.

Of course, the largely local audience wanted to talk about Humbert's role in the abolition of conscription in 1971 Gibraltar, an issue of human rights as well as of having to take to civil disobedience in order to claim that right.  His book goes into the story, his talk went into the human aspect of this, into his thoughts and feelings at the time, his fears and the legacy of the event.

On a much-needed lighter note for Saturday, the day and in fact my part in the event was wrapped up for me in a gloriously hilarious hour with the utterly irreverent Marcus Brigstocke talking about his life, his career and about god, or gods, or religion and non-religion.  Again, I bought the book and he very charmingly held a signing session, agreed to photos with members of the audience (these youngsters are good with the whole selfie phenomenon, aren't they?).

Marcus Brigstocke's website:

Marcus Brighstocke's God Collar

There were more events on Sunday, although I could not attend these and I have to assume that the holding of "Just a Minute" by Nicolas Parsons with Esther Rantzen, Miles Jupp, Marcus Brigstocke and Maureen Lipman must have been brilliant (I shall put feelers out this week and find out).

With several events for school children, such as the Magna Carta being presented by the absolutely brilliant Christopher Lloyd, the Gibraltar Literary Festival has been yet another success.  Are there things they can do to improve?  Well, of course there are, and if anyone in the Department of Culture or the even organisers are reading, here, for what they are worth are my thoughts:

  • Better audio helps.  
  • There could be more work with the local bookshops - ah, ok, there's only one bookshop and there's hardly floor space to browse and breathe at the same time, so one to work on.  Perhaps "pop up bookshops" around the town over the four days would help.  Yes, I know they were selling books at various events, but don't wait for people to come to you, go to the people.  Random appearances and signings would have gone down well with the public - us Gibraltarians are a naturally nosy bunch and I'm sure  they would have been well-attended.
  • Think about the level - is it pitched at a largely middle class English audience?  Yes, I know there were some "overseas" authors, and a couple of local authors, but I'm not convinced the local literary scene was fully represented, and I'm not sure that people who have not attended UK universities and might not feel totally comfortable in grand or intellectual surroundings would have felt this was something they could take part in readily.  But then, I'm not entirely sure the Literary Festival is about communities engaging with literature in its broadest sense.  Time to start a Fringe Festival of Words, methinks!
  • More workshops.  Where would readers be without writers.  There were two workshops this year which I think is great - more please!
What did you think of the Gibraltar Literary Festival?  Answers in the comment box please, or let me have your thoughts via my Facebook page or Twitter accounts: I really am interested, especially if you too want to have a Fringe Festival of Words!

And on a final point, for those of you wanting to support a threadbare local writer:

Jackie Anderson's The Dark Closes In

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Local Literary Life

Photo, "Storm Clouds" by antpkr, courtesy of

The autumn is well and truly set in, as I discovered when I walked the dog yesterday and got caught in a sudden shower.  Correction.  The sky was bursting with thick cloud and had been for hours.  The TV had been blaring weather warnings about storms for days.  The air was thick with humidity and no-one could bear the thought of wearing a raincoat.  Nothing seemed to be forthcoming so I set off in t-shirt and jeans.  Half an hour later, there is a tempest blasting in from what I think might have been a south-easterly direction, palm trees are bending over and touching their toes and people, myself included, are hugging any bit of building with some kind of canopy for shelter.  It didn't last long, but here we are; autumn.

Which locally means that the literati get more active than usual.  This week, local poets will have submitted their competition entries for the Autumn Festival poetry competition, which I love for the way that the community uses it as a way of getting local school kids reading and writing poetry.  And in a couple of weeks' time, Gibraltar hosts the literary festival, now in its third year and promising to be bigger than ever.  

Find the link to the website on the "Interesting Places to Visit" tab on the left hand panel
There has also been announced a new literary prize, which I'm sure will be of great interest locally because of it's excellent prize fund: £2000 for the first prize and £1000 for highly commended.  While many writers will write for love of the craft, it does help the development of local literature if writers can feed their families from the fruits of their labour, and there are sadly very few outlets in Gibraltar for local writers.  So thank you, Pedro Cabezutto for developing this prize and for launching an enterprising project in terms of a new publishing house.

For while it is important for local government to encourage literature and writing as a form of art, using its own competitions and a grant system, this alone cannot provide the fertile ground that is needed to grow talent.  I have noticed in the past year or so that more and more individuals are self-publshing books, some on-line and some in paper format.  This is great.  It is enterprising and seeing more people willing to expose their creations to the public eye is encouraging to the more timid of us.

Photo, "Abbotsford Library" by Dr Joseph Valks, courtesy of

However, where are all the bookshops?  Where are the venues for browsing books and reading and cultivating a real, cross-community interest in writing and story-telling? Other than the library at the John Mackintosh Hall, and excellent little place it is too.  Without book shops and libraries, perhaps writing classes and workshops, or even a writers group (I think there may be one meeting on a Tuesday morning, I need to find out more!) how do we share our work, learn from each other and from experts.

There is another point I wanted to make while thinking about what a community needs to develop a body of literature of its own - let's face it, Gibraltar, a colony for centuries, still has its to develop a body of literature that reaches out and speaks about its own identity and unique experience as a nation,  without speaking with the voice of its colonial masters.  This is the issue of quality.  Self-publishing is great: I love Kindle Direct and Createspace because I have published this way.  The weakness for a national body of literature is that there is no means of confirming the quality of the writing.  People in a small community buy their friends' books, or because their relatives have written it.  This bears no relation to how good the writing, how captivating the plot, how interesting the character, how controversial the subject.  Gibraltar needs several publishing houses, with qualified and experienced editors.  

Competitions such as the one set up by Pedro Cabezutto and the government certainly go a long way to help - note the deadline for the story competition is 31st October so get scribbling!  Prizes and a ready market for literary work can keep the flow of creativity going.   I hope that the Literary Festival goes some way to give an outlet and promotion to Gibraltarian writers.  This time next year, it would be great to see even more writers from Gibraltar selling books at book fairs, not just in the one shop or to friends and relatives.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Tackling a drought

Photo "Sand Dunes" by artur84 courtesy of
August is a yellow month.  Not golden, just hot and yellow and barren as the dry dust of the plains of La Mancha.  When the sun beats down on an August day, it blazes in white rage. It scorches where it touches, it sucks the green out of the landscape and leaves it burnt and brown, forsaken.  Even the blue of the sea is bleached to a dull greyish white, appealing only because you know how it can cool you, wash the trails of sweat from your skin.

August is a month which finds me in a state of physical and mental torpor.  It's probably due to the heat, with a large measure of blame to be laid on the fact that the kids have now been off school for several weeks and the novelty of holidays is wearing thin.  Year after year I find myself in a state of suspension in August:  I seem to be unable to find any fertile ground in the wastelands of my imagination, and writing becomes a chore rather than a pleasure, with words waiting to be dredged out of the bone-dry river bed that is my mind.  While others are finding inspiration in long stretches of beaches by sapphire seas, I hesitate, procrastinate and long for the cooler days and new start of September.

Photo, "Ground Broken" by tiverylucky, courtesy of

So this year, during the grim and ghastly month of August, while I waited in suspended animation for the start of autumn, I decided to have a good go at jump-starting some writing projects.  I set myself up an "inspiration store" in an old notebook, with the following results:

  • I found old cuttings from newspapers and magazines I had kept because I thought one day they might inspire me.  I ditched most of them, but I kept some, one particular one about a postman who won an award for saving the life of an elderly lady who had a fall and he noticed her post building up inside her porch.  He reported his concern, and social services managed to rescue the lady who had been lying at the bottom of the stairs for two or three days.  A local hero.
Newspaper clippings in my notebook

  • I like visuals.  I take a lot of photos, not because I'm a wannabe photographer, but because I use images for inspiration.  I use Pinterest in a similar way, as a scrapbook of images that will, I hope, one day release the perfect verbal description to slot into a story or poem.  So I pasted my favourite of these from inside magazines and old calendars into the notebook.  

  • I had a quick - no more than 15 minutes, timed - browse for online writing competitions.  Sometimes these give you a theme to work from or a challenge to write to a first line, or a last line, or a proverb.  I jotted some of these down.  Sometimes the discipline of half an hour's writing to a set theme is enough to shake the rust of the pen nibs and get the creative juices flowing.
The next step will be to create a digital inspiration album for all those phone photos I snap when out and about, or articles from e-zines.  It's all tantamount to the same thing - creating an endless source of inspiration and ideas.

The final thing I did, and this worked almost immediately.  I looked outside my window.  Now, I know I am spectacularly fortunate and with the support of my family am able to live in an apartment that overlooks the Bay of Gibraltar.  The view from the living room window is breathtaking, night and day, and, while I know many would prefer to see just scenes of nature, I find myself fascinated with the ceaseless activity of the port, and the ever-changing face of the sea.  That, is an inspiration all in itself.

Quick glance out the window...

So as September rolled in, I found myself spoilt for choice in terms of where to go with following an idea.  I continue to find the sea and its blueness alluded to in much of my writing.  But the first idea that flowed out of my pen became the story Stolen Moments.  Here it is.  Enjoy.


                                                        Stolen Moments
                                                        Jackie Anderson

 The kettle screams for attention and belches steam into the dank air of the kitchenette in the corner of his room.  Ian unfolds his arms and steps towards it, keeping meticulous time with the crisp ticking of the ornate wall clock that frowns down on him.  It belonged to his late grandfather and Ian can hear the old man’s disapproving click of the tongue in his teeth with every swing of the pendulum.
Ian sighs with his kettle when he takes it off the stove, and lets out a long breath.  Lately he finds himself so on edge that he stops breathing.  At those moments, he has to blow outwards so that he can breathe in again. When he’s at work he can disguise this as a whistle; everyone expects a postman to whistle.
He puts the kettle down on the draining board and remembers when he used to have an automatic kettle.  It was a year ago.  A year since everything went bottoms up heads down and life turned sour.  The business went.  The house went: that glorious villa he had built down near the beach.  The staff left, all his mates, sweating and heaving concrete with him when the going was good and now slaving for new masters.  They did not want to stay with him for love and sunshine.  Nor did his wife.
Ian pours boiling water into a cup and stirs a teabag into it.  He stares at how the water turns brown and the tiny dots of the tea leaves fret inside their perforated pyramid prison.  He fishes out the teabag, foregoes the milk, which has turned to sour lumps even in the fridge and sips with a first cringe at the bitterness of it.  He catches sight of a bundle of letters propped up against the empty biscuit tin and pauses. 
Shall I open them, he wonders.  He thinks the better of it and sits down at the stained table that perches on a dusty tiled floor.  He leans back in the chair, folds his arms and glares at the clock.  Black and forbidding, it stares back, its face a stark reminder of family.  They’ve all gone now; his brother and nephews back to England after they sold Granddad’s house and cleared the furniture.  Then Ian’s wife.  The thought of her still makes him clench his stomach with loss.  She ran off with his site manager.  Two people he had always expected to rely on.
He rubs his eyes and scratches at the grey stubble on his chin. He was furious at the time, rushed to divorce her, spent the last of his money on lawyers, and she still managed to force the sale of the house and then took Jeremy and Alicia, their children, to France where her mother lived.  So nothing left.  Certainly no money.  Only debts.  That was the only sure thing left in his life.  And the ticking of the damned clock.
He stares long at the letters.  Different sizes, different stamps, some with hand-written addresses others with typed labels.  One of them is from the courts, demanding money from him and he can see a tatty one with his landlord’s writing giving him until the end of the week to come up with the rest of the rent or leave the room.  Ian takes a cursory glance around him.  Not much to leave behind anyway.  His wages cover the rent and food.  The essentials.  But not the tax, not the lawyers, not the fines, not the debts and not the mobile phone, which is the only way he can speak to the kids.
Ian’s breathing falters and he’s back with the clock.  Even in this dismal bedsit its staccato striking echoes.  He listens intently and sucks air in, out, in, out, second after dull second. Time is ticking always forward, an infinite line that stretches ahead, a conveyor belt that doesn’t stop, doesn’t let you look, makes you lose sight of all that’s already been and gone.  It seems his grandfather has slapped him between the shoulders and he breathes again, finding rhythm along with that of the clock.
The bundle of letters summons him over, like a siren singing to a drowning sailor.  He holds back, staring at them.  He knows what they hold.  He’s been collecting them for weeks, bringing them home one at a time.  He’s come to know the way the envelopes feel between the fingers, the birthday card with the slight bulge in the middle where grandma has slid a couple of notes.  He was surprised at first when he realised some people still send cash in the mail.  He can tell by instinct now, so carefully has he been examining the letters over the past few months.
He taps his fingers on the table and Grandfather glares, tutting from the wall.  Ian purses his lips and watches the steam curl upwards from the tea towards the shaft of light that splits the grubby room in two, but again his gaze is drawn to the bundle of letters.  There might be enough there for a month’s rent.  He hasn’t had much time to think about how he will spend it; every waking moment is spent working.  Delivering mail, bar work at night and maintenance jobs at the weekends.
The relentless ticking competes with the car horns and yelling of yet another traffic jam outside his window.  Ian remembers having a car not that long ago.  The bailiffs confiscated it.  So many people having it good, having enough to stuff envelopes with cash and risk having it stolen.  At least he won’t squander it.
He snatches up the cup and winces when the tea burns his lips.  He wipes his muzzle roughly with the back of his hand feeling the coarseness of the bristles and wishing fleetingly that he had time to shave.  He coughs, the air in the room suddenly thick with burgeoning summer and threatening to suffocate him.  It’s like treacle, cloying, like syrup in his lungs.  Even the clock has dulled its tones to lisp out the seconds it takes Ian to reach to the bundle of letters and snatch them to his chest as if an invisible hand is about to strike them away from his grasp.
He opens them with care, using steam from the hot kettle.  He tosses the contents onto the table, cards and letters still folded over their precious contents in their dozens.
“Happy birthday Grandson”; “For your Holy Communion, Abigail”; “Congratulations on your Engagement”.  One after another. 
It’s been a year since Ian could send his children any gifts and weeks since he has spoken to them.  He can’t see them or give them a roof over their heads.  Not this squalid room in this shabby building over a dark patio where the sewers overflow every time it rains and stink when they dry out.  The breath is catching in his throat as he fights off the sobs.  On the other side of the table the wall clock glowers.
Ian breathes heavily now, panting as if he had sprinted up the mountainside in August.  His hands shake, his knees tremble and he sits heavily.  He leans his elbows on the table and laces his fingers so this hands are balled together.  He thinks that he can take the money out of those cards and slide it into his pocket and run down the hill to his landlord’s apartment and save himself one more time.  He doesn’t have to read the messages.  He doesn’t have to know who sent them or why.
He sits at that table as the minutes slink their way past.  By the time the sun begins to dip he has tear tracks like dry riverbeds crusted on his face.  He has one short hour left and then the rent has to be paid.
The clock shudders and strikes the hour.  With the lightest of groans, Ian reaches forward and takes a card.  There’s two twenty pound notes in it, a present for a newborn.  He looks at the address on the envelope.  It’s not far, just past his landlord’s.
Ian lights a cigarette, the last left of those his boss had let him have from his own pack.  He stuffs the letters, cards and their contents neatly into their envelopes and seals them.  Then he pops them in his pocket and leaves the room.  He’ll tell his landlord he’s leaving at the weekend.  Then he can bed down at the local hostel for a while.  And it’s summer. If needs must, he can find a dark corner somewhere outdoors.  Tonight he will be walking streets with special late deliveries.  He glances at the clock as he leaves.  Plenty of time before daybreak to get them all to their rightful owners.  The clock ticks at him.  Ian grins.  He might just get a few pounds for that monstrosity at the antique dealer’s.


Friday, 7 August 2015

Five point plan to productivity

Photo "Asian Woman Thinking" by Just2photos courtesy of

I recently seem to have read numerous posts / tweets / blogs that dwell on the distractions of social media from the business - serious or otherwise - of writing.  Not that social media is any more distracting than anything else when it comes to finding things to do other than sit at the keyboard and write that next chapter, or article or revise those poems.  It never ceases to amaze me with what enthusiasm I face the washing up or a pile of laundry during those precious hours that I am supposed to be writing instead.  I think this is called "displacement" and it appears to afflict lots of freelancers and people working from home, whether or not they are writers.  When you go into the office or your place of work, you have no choice but to work.  At home, even if you have a room that you use as an office, somehow, bed-making, hanging out the washing and hoovering all seem to suddenly demand that phrase:  "I'll just do this first".

Photo by John Kasawa courtesy of

This is where browsing on social media comes in as a fatal distraction.  After all, you are sitting at your pc or laptop.  To all intents and purposes you are "at work".  You probably have even opened up those files that you were intending to work on and maybe cast a glance at your notes. And then those words: "I'll just check my Facebook / Twitter / LinkedIn."  Fatal. 

So... if distracted, turn off those cables!  Photo "Old Typewriter" by Just2shutter courtesy of
Those five minutes you reckon you will allocate yourself to check your blog stats, post a few comments or tweet something to keep yourself up there in the eye of all those fans - real or imaginary - soon stretch to hours.  Social media is exactly as described on the lid: social, and we humans are social animals.  We hunt in packs, and sometimes a browse through Facebook or Twitter or any of the other sites, with the pretext of checking, updating or research, is distracting in the extreme.  News headlines catch your eye, you feel the need to watch a couple of cute pet videos, read up about some celebrity or other, sign a petition and indignantly reply to comments made on something outrageous but truly unimportant.  Of course, social media has its important place in networking as a writer and for marketing your book or article.  But marketing is one activity, and writing is, well, writing, without which, you would have nothing to market. 

Writers, superhuman though we might try to be, fall into the same traps as anyone else.  When we are faced with a challenge, especially if we are not sure how to tackle it, we find other things to do.  I've seen this tactic many times in the workplace, where colleagues procrastinate over what might seem simple and in reality they do so because they are not sure what they are supposed to be doing.  So how best to get over a case of Fatal Distraction? Here's a five-point plan that has often worked for me:

  1. Set goals - be clear on what you want to achieve during that particular writing session.  If, like me, you have only short bursts of time at your disposal, you need to make best use of them.  Setting small, achievable goals often works.
  2. Facebook Time - Set aside a pocket of time for social media which does not overlap with writing time, and slake that social media thirst.
  3. Turn off the internet - Yes, radical, but for that period when you want to really concentrate, pull the cable out of the wall!  It works.  Drives the rest of the family mad - but give them warning and see your writing grow.
  4. Walk, look, think - if you are really stuck, go for a walk, stop and look into thin air, go quiet, do nothing and just think.  Don't allow your mind to wander onto anything else least of all communicating with anyone.  Think it through.  Those short busts of quiet thinking get you a long way.
  5. Plan ahead - Finish each writing session with a couple of bullet points on what you want to achieve next time and start again at the top of this list.
Once you've done all that - you'll soon be spending your sessions avoiding social media so you can dedicate your time to editing your manuscript - with publication in sight.  And it's at publication that social media will really come into its own for you!  Unless you're a blogger - but that's a whole other story!

Photo by jscreationzs courtesy of