Friday, 29 April 2016

Gibraltar's Writers Write Together

Photo by punsayaporn courtesy of www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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 www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Stories all around

Photo by Surachai courtesy of www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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 www.FreeDigitalPhotos.com

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 www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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 www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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 www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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 www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Resolving to write


Photo "Notebook and Pens" by artur84 courtesy of www.FreeDigitalPhots.net


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 www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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 www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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 www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net






Friday, 4 December 2015

SOS

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 www.freedigitalphotos.net

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.