Sunday, 14 August 2016

Summertime, seaside and sonnets

Low tide on the Medway Estuary

Some writers use the summer as a period of "downtime".  It makes sense - the days are long and drowsy, filled with the warmth of sunshine, the scent of wildflowers and the sleepy hum of bumble bees. The break from routine refreshes us and our creative muscle becomes toned and honed so that we can return to that writing project that will then fill our autumn evening.

So the idyll goes.  Many others of us are still stuck in the treadmill that takes us in long grey lines of commuters to the conveyor belt of activity that is the office or warehouse or wherever it is we spend our days and we are still trying to scribble out that masterpiece late into the night wondering if anyone is ever going to bother reading those words that seem so difficult to draw out of our exhausted minds.

Taking a walk by the Thames can be surprisingly inspirational

Yet even for those stuck at work, the general slowdown that comes each summer can be a bit of a breather, a chance to relax, refresh and restore the spark to their writing. 

Some city dwellers are lucky enough to find local parks with a lake, such as Capstone Park in Chatham

Summertime is thought of as synonymous with the sea.  A good walk along the shore can do wonders to dissolve those cobwebs, clear the fog of overwork (surely I am not the only one who suffers from acute brain fog after one of those interminable meetings where nothing is actually decided?), and inspire.  The sound of the waves, their movement, the way the light plays on them, what they mean to the poet, for example, can all be expressed in words, words that have a gift of arising as the mind relaxes and the writer observes the sea. Take these, from Pablo Neruda in his poem "The Wide Ocean".

The falling wave,
arch of identity, shattering feathers,

is only spume when it clears, 
and returns to its source, unconsumed.

I rather think that a description like this comes from the poet's close observation of wave after wave after wave crashing along the sea shore.

I love being by the sea.  Just an hour after work is enough to energise me.  And I love taking a stroll along the ragged edge of a river, or the wide marshes on the fringe of the estuary.  Some people do similar.  Or they fish, collect pebbles, shells, dig around the mud for cockles and mussels, take photographs with their complex cameras and long lenses.  On my walks along the canal bank, I see students sketching, retired artists daubing watercolours on canvas.  Bodies of water appeal to thinkers as well as doers.  Writers collect words.  Then they go away and mould them into poems, or sentences that pick up the thread of their novel, or add meaning to a story-line. 

So whether you are on holiday at the seaside, or stuck at work, it's worth making the most of those lingering hours of daylight to go down to the river, or lake, or sea, or pond.  Let your mind wander and let the words flow like the incoming tide.  As the sonnet by John Keats goes:

It keeps eternal whisperings around 
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
Often 'tis in such gentle temper found
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be mov'd for days from whence it sometime fell,
When last the winds of heaven were unbound.
Oh ye! who have your eye-balls vex'd and tir'd,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;
Oh ye! whose ears are dinn'd with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody,--
Sit ye near some old cavern's mouth, and brood
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs quir'd! 

John Keats

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Stuck in a writing rut?

Not so much stuck in a writing rut as just a bit plain stuck.  I can't complain, mind, there are few more perfect places than being stuck at the home you grew up in, surrounded by family and friends and occasionally benefiting from a cuppa made by your Mum in just the way you like it.

So I'm in Kent, UK for more than just the two weeks that I expected to be, and unlikely to be back home in Gibraltar before the end of August.  The pros, besides loving spending precious time with the family, are many:  I can't go to work so I am having to relax, something I find difficult to do; I can nose around old haunts and see how these have changed, or not, improved or worsened, all of which is quite fascinating; I can go to London which is only a train ride away and I simply love London; I can enjoy warm sunshine without having to hide from the intensity of August Mediterranean heat; I can take a walk on cool grass, breathe clean, country air within a short walk, lay flowers on my father's grave, visit my grandparents' grave and remember my youth.

St Mary Magdalene Church, Gillingham, Kent

The cons: I need to get back to work (no work, no money, although with the internet I have been able to complete some of my writing commissions and hope to Facetime or Skype some clients before they find other writers for their projects); I struggle to get into a routine, interruptions are numerous, distractions more so.  So when I do manage to sit at a computer or tablet, or get my notebook and pen out, I find the hours stroll by at a noncholant pace and I write nothing.  Not even something vague which might be shaped into something useful in the future.  Just plain nothing.

There's only one thing for it.  When I get stuck in as much of a writing rut as I am at the moment, the best thing I can do is walk it off.  Visit places, see people.  For the writer, embracing these distractions can sometimes pay off.  People are endlessly fascinating and even a brief glance at the people in the supermarket queue in front of you can spark an idea, or crop up in a short story in a few months' time.  Places are evocative of emotions, and emotions are what stories appeal to, strive for and evoke.  

Tonight I'm browsing through some of the snapshots I took on my phone of the places I've been to in these past few weeks.  Tomorrow I know that I will be writing.  I've walked, I've contemplated.  By tomorrow the ideas will be formulating and the words will start to flow.  A writing rut?  What's that?

On London Bridge

Rochester Castle, Kent

Friday, 29 April 2016

Gibraltar's Writers Write Together

Photo by punsayaporn courtesy of

The first meeting of a group of Gibraltar Writers for a couple of years was almost the highlight of my writing month in April.  Although there are many writers in Gibraltar and in the past couple of years there has been an increase in the numbers of books published by Gibraltarians or about Gibraltar, there has never been a supportive, cohesive group or community of writers that can work together to drive forward the development of Gibraltarian literature.

With a bit of work in the local press, the moral support of Gibraltar Cultural Services staff, and making use of an existing Facebook group and social media, I pushed it.  Not sure why, because it will mean a good deal of commitment on my part and devoting time which I had been hoping to spend dawdling about reading the mammoth "to read" pile of books I've amassed over the years.

Gibraltar Writers Facebook group

I guess on reflection, it was always about the human need of finding safety in numbers.  Writing can be a pretty lonesome enterprise and I have blogged before about the useful work of writing groups.  For me it is all about finding support among others who love to write, about sharing skills and experiences, about helping others to tap into their creativity.

I'm also nurturing this idea that a strong creative writing group can also contribute to the local community as well as develop Gibraltar's own unique literature and the individual talents of all those closet writers on the Rock.  Writing can be cathartic, it can be a way of tapping into emotions or parts of the psyche that needs healing.  It can help a dying person come to terms with parting from their loved ones and vice versa, while also leaving a legacy of unique written memories behind them.  It can help those who have become disengaged from society to find an outlet for their frustrations and learn new skills, communicate usefully and re-engage with society.  It can bring a sense of value back to the lives of those who have felt discarded and cast aside by society. 

We split into pairs to get to know each other better and to work on a short writing project.

So what happened at the first event of Writers Together?  Well, we got to know each other a little, we planned ahead to what we could do in the future, and we got writing with a mini workshop.  I was struck by the diversity of writing styles and ambitions in terms of what the writers want to achieve with their writing, from memoirs for their grandchildren to stories, travel articles and content for a professional website.

Next steps - another get together next month, with hopefully more writers coming together, and another mini-workshop.  At the end of the day, you can't be a writer until you start writing, and you can't get better unless you practice, lots.

And as for the other highlight of the month - it's a freelance writing gig.  A proper, writing commission that puts all those wishes into focus and gets me actually working and forced to type whether I am hit by inspiration or not.  Can I call myself a professional writer yet?  Perhaps I will when the articles are actually published - just watch this space!

Photo courtesy of

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Stories all around

Photo by Surachai courtesy of
We understand our world in stories.  We tell stories to inform each other of events, to explain circumstances, to reflect on history, to investigate our thinking and explore concepts.  Some stories are make-believe and some are real, but what we do know, is that as human beings, our understanding and knowledge is based on the stories that we create and tell.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, 

stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

― Philip Pullman

March in Gibraltar was very much the month of the story.  It all started right at the beginning of the month with World Book Day.  I joined a number of local authors at the John Mackintosh Hall where we set out our publications in the gallery overlooked by the exhibited works of young local artists. The focus of my day was the mini-workshops that I ran, aimed at encouraging local writers, or anyone who wants to write but won't go as far as calling himself a writer, to join a writers' group.

Christiana Fagan talking to a group of school children about her beautiful Nature Diary which she wrote and illustrated with water colours.
It was very much a day where we all focused on stories, local authors told the stories of their books and the school kids listened to the story telling session laid on by the Gibraltar Cultural Services department in the theatre upstairs.  At the workshops we looked at where we can find inspiration for stories, and how we can create a beginning to make reader's mouths water with anticipation, a middle filled with unexpected delights and an ending to savour. We are now looking forward to getting together later in April to see if we really can get a writers' group off the ground and create a home for all those stories in the making.

My review of World Book Day for Mum on The Rock

The month continued with the Drama Festival, and an absolute feast of dramatised stories it was.  I was lucky to attend almost every performance, missing only some of the junior ones because these were staged earlier in the day and clashed with work. I was hugely impressed with the Drama Festival, mainly because some of the theatre groups took on the challenge of some very difficult plays and pulled these off brilliantly well.  Notable to me were the polished performances of Jean-Paul Lugaro and Samantha Barrass in "Constellations" by Nick Payne, which won Samantha the Best Actress award, and the ensemble of young players from the Bayside and Westside Drama Group in Berkoff's "The Trial".  This latter play was mesmerizing from beginning to end and won the brilliant young Billy Snell as Joseph K the Best Actor award.  Super stories well told, it was a hugely enjoyable week of theatre for me.

My review of the Gibraltar Drama Festival 2016 for Mum on The Rock

We also had the deadline for the Gibraltar Spring Short Story competition in March.  Now, much as I love stories, I find these hard to write, especially with a 1000 word limit.  I did submit one, dubiously, and I shall wait and see how it fares, which is one of the things I like about submitting work: the anticipation.  Of course, the deep gloom that then descends on me after rejection or failure is something else.  I hope lots of other writers submitted too.  The short story competition is one of the very few local outlets for writers to showcase their work.

Photo by Witthaya Phonsawat courtesy of

For me, the story moved on and at the end of the month during the Easter weekend, I volunteered my writing skills to keeping the media and the world of pool updated during the International Pool Association's Gibraltar leg of the World Series tournament.  I have never been a writer of anything sporty before, so it was a first for me, but I think I've found a new skill.  I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge and getting to grips with something very out of my comfort zone, and I kept Facebook sites and Twitter feeds busy with reports on the matches.  A new way for me to look at and tell a story.

IPA Professional World Series Gibraltar 2016 page

From the month of stories to a month in which I am working on a new piece of fiction...because I just love stories. 

Photo by jannoon 028 courtesy of

Friday, 26 February 2016

The organisers of the Symposium and exhibition, Michael Netter, Alfred Olivero and Alfred Sacramento
Photo courtesy of Gibraltar Chronicle

Meandering round art galleries is something that I like to do from time to time; I find it relaxing, sometimes stimulating, often simply an opportunity to pause and think outside of the usual hectic run of routine.  It is not often that I emerge from an exhibition so moved, and yet for the second time in a few months, I have emerged from the Gustavo Bacarisas Gallery at Casemates, Gibraltar, with a lump in my throat and a quiet, thoughtful sense of pride.

The exhibition was that on the Spanish Civil War and the Gibraltar dimension, organised by three former Unite members with the support of Unite the union.  It formed part of the Symposium held the previous week which brought together representatives from Spanish trade unions, local historians, union members and also academics, notably Dr Chris Grocott and Professor Gareth Stockey.  

The lump in the throat came from the stories I read on the display panels of brave local people and how they contributed to the care of thousands of refugees who flocked into Gibraltar.  Yes, some of these refugees were possibly rabble-rousers and trouble-makers, as our colonial masters at the time would want us believe.  Some turned out to be spies for both the Nationalist rebels and for the Republican government.  Most were simply people terrified of the horror that was unleashed at Gibraltar's threshold.  There were images of thousands of people pressed against the frontier gates, closed in panic by the British.  There were images of boats of refugees being rowed into the eastern beaches from the Spanish coast.  There were images of children receiving medical attention and food handouts.  These were images in black and white, not colour, but not dissimilar to those on our TV screens recently.

Explaining the exhibits to a child, so that generations to come can learn from the past

And Gibraltar stepped up to the situation.  Refugees camps were set up and when the authorities closed these down, the refugees were housed, crammed into back rooms, front rooms, any rooms of the local community who knew full well that return to Spain for most meant certain death with a likelihood of torture first. Soup kitchens were set up, food was distributed, medical treatment doled out.  The authorities protested and sent many back, but Gibraltarian heroes were made in those intense years between 1936 to 1939, heroes who cared about the hell that had been unleashed in Spain and the suffering of their neighbouring community.  Viewing this exhibition at a time when hundreds of thousands of refugees clamour for succour at Europe's gates, the pertinence of the acts of our grandparents is poignant and hugely significant.

In the furthest room of the gallery, a documentary was played, and the lump in my throat turned to pride.  My uncle, Humbert Hernandez, contributed to the documentary as he did to the symposium with a learned and beautifully delivered analysis of how the British, the Church and Gibraltar's business leaders gave support to the fascist Franco, his rebel army and his murderous regime.  It was refreshing to hear at last an objective and unabashed criticism of Gibraltar's establishment.  It is only through this sort of open criticism that societies can openly learn about their history, their roots, where they have come from and where they are heading.  

Pictured with colleagues from the Socorro Rojo, my grandfather, Rogelio Hernandez (bottom left)
The documentary was brilliantly put together, with local people talking about the experiences of their families - experiences so horrific that it can only give a small taste of the fear which our families experiences only two generations ago.  Among the images flashing onto the screen was that of my grandfather, who had been involved in helping refugees through the Socorro Rojo, and in getting aid raised by Socorro Rojo to those terrorised by Franco's repressive regime.  And an image of my Great Uncle, who, sickened by the terrible torture that he had witnessed, had made a comment criticising Franco, a comment fueled by alcohol in a Spanish bar, and who was kidnapped and shot.  

So many images, so many tragic stories.  Yet emerging from the exhibition were stories, publicly told for the first time, of Gibraltarians who went to fight for the Republic, some who were injured, killed, jailed.  Stories of some who tirelessly campaigned for the rights of the refugees to a safe home, to work and to remain in Gibraltar once the war was over; some who helped with feeding refugees, such as Judah Benzimrah; the many housewives who cooked all day tirelessly and gave up their homes to house whoever they kid; the people who risked everything to smuggle supplies of food and medicine across to Spain to help those captive of the terror.

Samples of William Gomez' diary, courtesy of his son Cecil Gomez, one of the exhibits

This is the first time that the lid has been lifted on this formative period in Gibraltar's history.  The stewards at the exhibition could not have been more helpful.  They were there to answer questions, explain some of the exhibits, such as William Gomez' diary of the period which chronicles the events as reported in the local press.  They also explained that dozens of people have come forward in the last few days with their own stories, their family memories of what happened at the time.  All of them significant.  All of them part of Gibraltar's as yet untold history.

A brilliant exhibition.  I would urge anyone interested in understanding why Gibraltar is how it is and how Gibraltarians are who they are to go along and see for themselves - on Monday it is moving to the Unite building at Town Range.  I left the building deeply moved, proud of my family, proud of Gibraltar.  The spirit that allowed us to open our arms in 1936 and help our neighbours, is precisely the spirit needed by the rest of Europe today.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Dare to Publish

Well, the deed is done.  I went and pressed the "Publish" button on Amazon Createspace and there it is, my book, available on Kindle and in paperback across the globe. Wow.  For a writer, I'm remarkably lost for words.

Not that it was an easy thing, publishing my own book, and I have yet to experience the full force of public feedback - of which I hope to get loads and all positive, of course.  I had to write it for a start, and then proof-read it over and over and over to make sure it was as perfect as can be.  Then there was the whole wrestling with the layout thing, which actually was not anywhere near as hard as I expected and there is a good deal of guidance online on how to do it.  And Createspace does make it all pretty easy.

Photo, "Books Key" by renjith krishnan, courtesy of

The cover gave me a little more trouble, and while it is perfectly possible to pay for a professional cover design which is probably worth while the expense, I wanted to use one of my daughter's photographs which I felt fit the theme perfectly.  With a bit of tinkering on the computer and a good deal of trial and error, the cover was prepared and loaded.

Photo of Carmen Anderson taken by Jessica Richardson of Little Lenses Photography

Then came proofing the product.  That was a test of endurance if ever there was one.  It took me weeks and weeks to get the look and layout right, and iron out as many mistakes as I could find, such as the page numbering which went awry at one stage, and the page breaks.  I ordered proof copies, waited to receive them, took an editing pencil to them and then had to make changes.  Right up to the moment I pressed the button to publish, I had doubts.

Now to market the book.  I still have doubts.  Will readers like it?  Will anyone be tempted to buy it?  Will people laugh at my audacity to publish a selection of short stories?  Will they mock because they are not of the literary standards of Somerset Maugham or Ernest Hemingway?  They are stories mainly written for youngsters, and tested out on my teenage daughter's friends.  Their feedback was good, so I kept going.  That voice of doubt always nagging at me keeps whispering that of course they said they liked the stories because they didn't want to offend me.  Perhaps I'll rope them into the social media marketing of it and make them stand by their words!

Photo by KROMKRATHOG courtesy of

Self doubt, I suppose, is an occupational hazard for the writer, and when there are few opportunities to network with other writers and gain feedback for your work, you can never be quite sure that you are good enough.  That's why I strongly advocate joining a writer's group.  A good, well-run writer's group can provide so much support and reassurance to writers, and can help local writers go from scribbling on an old notebook to seeing their work in print - or performed if they are playwrights.

I have blogged on this subject before, and probably will again.  I still have an ambition to be part of a writer's group in Gibraltar, a group where the local talent - and there is a good deal of it - pools it resources and encourages the craft to grow.  I was once a member of the Medway Mermaids writers' group and they helped my confidence as a writer grow.  I've added a link to their website in the panel to the right of this page and below:

Medway Mermaids

Attending their sessions was invaluable to my development as a writer.  Without that confidence I would never have entered my poems into competitions, and I would never have pressed that "publish" button.  Now I have, so it's publish and be damned, or publish and enjoy.  Time will tell.

Photo by Stuart Miles courtesy of

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