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Sunday, 24 September 2017

writing tips, panthers and other nonsense

There are just three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.

So said Somerset Maugham who in many ways started me writing.
When I was a child I penned avidly and on the suggestion of someone took up a pen name. On my parents book shelves were a handful of Dennis Wheatley's and a novel by the said Somerset. So I called myself M.M.Maugham. For some reason the M M stood for Maggoty Mouldy. I may still use this name if I get a publisher who wants me to change my name. I may even try and get these books published - including the spelling mistakes. There was a notty wind that made all the people koff. (I hope I didn't start the story with this - see later tip about not starting a book with the weather.) Decipher that if you can. A lot of my writings then where accompanied by crayon drawings of hedgehogs wearing shorts.

Apart from Never use the words "suddenly" or "when all hell broke loose." - 
with the help of some of our house guests I have made a short list of writing tips. When I visit schools to talk about writing I illustrate the five useful tips I selected with their photo opportunities. 

Tip 1.  Read as much as you can.

Tip 2. don't make phone calls and keep off Facebook.
Tip 3.  Listen to the way people speak.

Tip 4. Get a pet to keep your circulation going whilst you wait.
Tip 5. Just Wait.

This is a tip from the great American poet and writer Charles Bukowski who related an idea to a bug. You might swat it dead or make a friend of it. I have a few dead bugs in my bottom drawer.
I trawled through the internet looking for writing tips and there are plenty of good ones.
every character wants something even if it's only a glass of water
never use a long word when a short word will do.
Never open a book with the weather.
This is the opening of my book The Boy with the Tiger's Heart.
The snow falls heavily that night and in the morning lies in deep drifts ......

Oh well. Isn't there a saying that says never say never?

On the writing front I have just finished the first draft of a new story. There is a black panther in it and in doing some research I was lucky enough to go on set with one. I took this picture in a film studio - the green background enables a different backdrop to be substituted. More than likely a jungle which is where this panther should probably be- though this one is tame. I was amazed at how long their tails are - up close they are at least the length of their bodies.
Here is our own black panther - Nancy - who is sitting on her tail (and some socks)which is a good deal shorter.

Panthers are often referred to as the ghost of the forest  -as they are so silent - like they walk on vapours. The panther's trainer told me one could take a man sitting round a camp fire in the jungle and his companions would have no idea he had gone. I imagine he was not in mid conversation.

Writing can be a lonely business but as Beezle and Paulo Coelho would say "Blessed are those who do not fear solitude, who are not afraid of their own company, who are not always desperately looking for something to do."
   And Pixie's interesting fact is
Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read. (she nicked this from Groucho Marx.)

Letter from a Reader

by Adam Zagajewski

Too much  about death,
too many shadows.
Write about life,
an average day,
the yearning for order.

Take the school bell
as your model
of moderation,
even scholarship.

Too much death,
too much
dark radiance.

Take a look,
crowds packed
in cramped stadiums
sing hymns of hatred.

Too much music,
too little harmony,peace

Write about those moments
when friendship's footbridges
seem more enduring
than despair.

Write about love.
long evenings,
the dawn,
the trees,
about the endless patience
of the light.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

glorious corvus and circus maximus

Beezle not particularly enjoying the new version of Ben Hur

We found ourselves watching the latest blockbuster version of Ben Hur the other evening- all hooves and wheels and sandals. It is not my intention to be a film critic on this blog but I have to say it was not nearly as good as the version with Charlton Heston. When we were children our grandfather took my sister and I to see it and we were very excited. We had heard that a stunt man had actually been killed in the chariot race and that it was still on film. Being rather morbid children we were keen to witness it. The moment it happened in the film, and it was true, you could see him caught up under the wheels of a chariot, my sister aged fifteen dramatically turned for comfort from the sailor sitting in the seat next to her. I think he was probably delighted but my grandfather told her off. That version was really spectacular because they didn't have CGI in those days and so they did have hundreds of extras and everything was built on set. In this version there are probably only about twenty extras who are made to look like thousands of Romans. And in this version, when Ben Hur turns to his brother and says "will you talk to your people?"  and "you must come over for dinner" it lost all credibility for me. Surely they didn't talk like that in Roman times. I though they were going to launch into a diatribe about hedge funds.I half expected Jesus - who was a carpenter in the film and seen working on an Ikea look alike table to be turning out a set of dining chairs. Also I think it was Prosecco in those goblets.

Anyway - inspired by the chariot race we thought it time to hitch Harry up to the cart.

When the time came there wasn't anyone to race with and I think he was a little disappointed but I told him I'd speak to my people.
here's Harry talking to one of his people.

Pixie's very interesting fact is that in the original 1925 Ben-Hur film - silent era movie stars signed up as extras to get a better view. Including Gary Cooper and Clark Gable.

As Beezle and Joan Didion would say " We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not."

Have just had a jackdaw guest here on holiday for a week. He was sweet company and whenever I was talking on the phone he decided to join in. He chirruped with a range of different voices. Perhaps he was talking to his people.
Below is one of the jackdaws and a rook from last year. I've looked after so many now I'm not sure which ones these are but they have a big interest in horticulture by the looks of it.


by Adam Zagajewski

A blackbird sat on the TV antenna
and sang a gentle, jazzy tune.
Whom have you lost, I asked,what do you mourn?
I'm taking leave of those who've gone, the blackbird said,
I'm parting with the day (its eyes and lashes),
I mourn a girl who lived in Thrace,
you wouldn't know her.
I'm sorry for the willow, killed by frost.
I weep, since all things pass and alter
and return, but always in a different form.
My narrow throat can barely hold
the grief, despair, delight, and pride
occasioned by such sweeping transformations.
A funeral cortege passes up ahead,
the same each evening, there, on the horizon's thread.
Everyone's there, I see them all and bid farewell.
I see the swords, hats, kerchiefs, and bare feet,
guns, blood and ink. They walk slowly
and vanish in the river mist, on the right bank.
I say goodbye to them and you and the light,
and then I greet the night, since I serve her -

and black silks, black powers.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

who let the ducks out?

This has been a month of all things duck

As previously reported, the mother duck who I wasn't sure could count hatched her nine eggs. As it happens it is me who cannot count. She had ten eggs. When hatched she had seven ducklings. As it happens she had eight. Two sadly met untimely deaths involving getting stuck somewhere but she was a very proud mother of five - er -  six adorable little chaps. Actually she hadn't been the only one to lay eggs and sit on them. Her sister had attempted it as well. But whereas the first duck made a beautiful nest lined with plant labels and the down plucked from her chest, set amongst a pastoral setting of soft planting -  her sister made a paltry nest amongst the flowerpots like she was some sort of trailer trash.
Sadly she laid two eggs, one disappearing and the other she got bored with and it never hatched. I'm not sure she would have been such a good mother as she preferred to hang out with the drakes.

So now we have thirteen ducks in various shapes and sizes. I have swopped three of the Indian Runner ducklings with my friend Mary for three Magpie Ducklings. (see above) I am hoping that once the mating season is over (mid August) they will all get along just fine. At the moment there is a great deal of suspicion.
somewhere in here are eight ducklings -you can see why they were difficult to count. They are one day old.

the three new Magpie ducks
I'm not sure if I'll be naming them. When we first got the Indian Runners - a beautiful smart black pair - they were named Mr and Mrs Walters. We added a white one later called Phyllis. I had to take her to the vet once in a box and sat in the waiting room with other people with boxes containing cats or dogs on leads. We were the only duck and in vets they insist on adding your surname to the chosen name of your pet. So "Phyllis Coggin"was duly summoned. She popped her head up out of the box and the waiting room collapsed in giggles.
the mother duck with her three remaining off spring
Now all the ducks seem to be called Walters. The two boys in the garden are the Mister and Mister Walters. When the babies grow up and prove to be boys (most likely - they usually outnumber the girls when they hatch) I may well put them in the garden too so we'll have the Mister, Mister, Mister and Mister Walters who I daresay will all want to come into the house and admire themselves in the glass of the washing machine.
the two boys in the garden
When I first introduced the new ducks to the old ducks there was a lot of pecking which went on. I now understand the saying "a pecking order" as indeed there is one. The alpha male (Mr Walters) is above the other male (Mr Walters) and the Mrs Walters have no say in the matter. I'm going to introduce feminism into the coop. I  also understand all those useful maxims. "don't count your eggs before they're hatched." "Don't put all your eggs in one basket."
Pixie's very interesting fact is that ducks have no nerves or blood vessels in their feet.

And as Beezle and Kalu Rinpoche would say " We will never again have the chance to be born into a body like this one."

Each summer the house martins return to the stables - here is the latest brood - soon to fledge.


by Frank W. Harvey

From troubles of the world I turn to ducks,
Beautiful comical things
Sleeping or curled
Their heads beneath white wings
By water cool,
Or finding curious things
To eat in various mucks
Beneath the pool,
Tails uppermost, or waddling
Sailor-like on the shores
Of ponds, or paddling
- Left!  Right! - with fanlike feet
Which are for steady oars
When they (white galleys) float
Each bird a boat
Rippling at will the sweet
Wide waterway…
When night is fallen you creep
Upstairs, but drakes and dillies
Nest with pale water-stars.
Moonbeams and shadow bars,
And water-lilies:
Fearful too much to sleep
Since they've no locks
To click against the teeth
Of weasel and fox.
And warm beneath
Are eggs of cloudy green
Whence hungry rats and lean
Would stealthily suck
New life, but for the mien
The hold ferocious mien
Of the mother-duck.


Yes, ducks are valiant things
On nests of twigs and straws,
And ducks are soothy things
And lovely on the lake
When that the sunlight draws
Thereon their pictures dim
In colours cool.
And when beneath the pool
They dabble, and when they swim
And make their rippling rings,
0 ducks are beautiful things!
But ducks are comical things:-
As comical as you.
They waddle round, they do.
They eat all sorts of things,
And then they quack.
By barn and stable and stack
They wander at their will,
But if you go too near
They look at you through black
Small topaz-tinted eyes
And wish you ill.
Triangular and clear
They leave their curious track
In mud at the water's edge,
And there amid the sedge
And slime they gobble and peer
Saying 'Quack! quack!'


When God had finished the stars and whirl of coloured suns
He turned His mind from big things to fashion little ones;
Beautiful tiny things (like daisies) He made, and then
He made the comical ones in case the minds of men
Should stiffen and become
Dull, humourless and glum,
And so forgetful of their Maker be
As to take even themselves - quite seriously.
Caterpillars and cats are lively and excellent puns:
All God's jokes are good - even the practical ones!
And as for the duck, 1 think God must have smiled a bit
Seeing those bright eyes blink on the day He fashioned it.
And he's probably laughing still at the sound that came out of its bill!

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

who let the cats out?

Had a fantastic day at the East Sussex Book Awards.

The presentation for my book The Dog, Ray began with a rocking version of "Who Let the Dogs Out?" (thank you Henry). There was dissension in the ranks when I reported back home and the cats (mainly the ring leader Pocket (quarter Bengal) said "What about us cats? You always write about the dogs." " But,"I said, "I am in the middle of writing a book about a Cat."

 After a scuffle I agreed to put some pictures up. We couldn't find any of Nancy so they are all of Pocket {quarter Bengal}

 I don't normally discuss family or politics on the blog but here is Pixie running through a field of wheat. (those aware of  the Maybot will know of her misdemeanours when she was young. those who aren't might just enjoy the beautiful photo taken by Chloe Coggin.)

Whilst we are on the subject of Pixie - her very interesting fact is that cats have thirty two muscles in each ear. A fact I am using in my new book that features a Cat.

On the duck front these two fellas are still in love and in the poly area two of the females are sitting on eggs. One has nine eggs the other two. Trouble is the gestation period is 28 days and we are on day 29. I'm not sure if ducks can count.

 Here is Pixie waiting for the postman. I told her the Postman Always Rings Twice. (clever literary reference.) She tells me that was in 1934 and that things have changed. Postman now only knock once.

 But as Beezle and Chaucer would say "Time and Tide wait for no one."

A Cat
by Edward Thomas
She had a name among the children;
But no one loved though someone owned
Her, locked her out of doors at bedtime
And had her kittens duly drowned.
In Spring, nevertheless, this cat
Ate blackbirds, thrushes, nightingales,
And birds of bright voice and plume and flight,
As well as scraps from neighbours’ pails.
I loathed and hated her for this;
One speckle on a thrush’s breast
Was worth a million such; and yet
She lived long, till God gave her rest.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

owls, towels and more rooks.

The other day I found a young owl sitting in a puddle.

 It was tipping down with rain and he was completely waterlogged. A huge buzzard was watching, ready to scoop him up but he was so wet he couldn't move. I picked him up and took him home. Unlike the rooks his claws viciously wrapped around my hand (I still bear the marks) but he was calm and stared at me with his huge eyes which I knew didn't see me at such close quarters. I don't have a hairdryer so I used a towel and when he was dry I took him back to where we'd found him and put him up in a tree. I went back a few hours later and he had gone. I am hoping the buzzard didn't find him - he was well camouflaged.

Well it is the season for Rook Rescue. This is Stella - one of those young rooks that land on the ground and can't fly and can't feed themselves. The farmer told me that a red kite was picking them up for his supper or to feed its own young. I rescued her from Pixie who wanted to catch her too.
She is making great progress and can now feed herself. She'll be able to join the other rooks any day now I'd think. Meanwhile she's been an engaging writing companion though a little distracting.

 I couldn't resist this picture - not taken by me. Beezle tells me I should credit the photographer but as I don't know who took the picture I've explained it's a little hard to do that. Apologies if whoever took it reads this blog.

Meanwhile - Pixie's very interesting fact is that owls have three eyelids.

Pixie is learning to read.  Her favourite book is Clifford - the small red puppy.

Meanwhile Pocket is waiting for a call from his agent. I have used this photograph in my talk about writing tips. It illustrates the tip that says "Keep off social media and don't make personal phone calls." I might put the other tips up on a later blog post when there is a dearth of news and no rooks to rescue. Interestingly - my Native American Spirit animal is a Raven!

  Beezle says he can already read and he's exhausted having to read all about himself in The Dog, Ray.
The book has won another prize -  the Lancashire Fantastic Book Award and I have just returned from Preston where I went to meet some of the children who voted for it. I went to a wonderful school called St. Oswold's Primary where the children were so sweet and gave Beezle a bone shaped biscuit tin, a ball on a rope and an encouraging card. In hindsight I should have taken him with me on the train.
But as he and Montaigne would say "My Life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened."

Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard.

His beak could open a bottle,
and his eyes - when he lifts their soft lids -
go on reading something
just beyond your shoulder -
Blake, maybe,
or the Book of Revelation.

Never mind that he eats only the black-smocked crickets,
and dragonflies if they happen
to be out late over the ponds, and of course
the occasional festal mouse.
Never mind that he is only a memo
from the offices of fear-

it's not size but surge that tells us
when we're in touch with something real,
and when I hear him in the orchard
down the little aluminum
ladder of his scream -
when I see his wings open, like two black ferns,

a flurry of palpitations
as old as sleet
rackets across the marshlands
of my heart,
like a wild spring day.

Mary Oliver

Monday, 17 April 2017

pirates and things she ate

I don't normally approve of dressing up animals - I think it challenges their dignity - but this Easter someone popped a pirate's hat on Beezle and he seemed to rather like it.

                                           So for the day he became Capt. Beezle Arr!

This nautical theme is rather apt because I have been persuaded to write a biography about my grandfather Captain(Skipper) Chapman who sailed the seven seas in square rigged sailing ships at the turn of the last century. His tales at sea are wonderful and include being one of only 14 survivors when a hospital ship he was on was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine during the first world war. The submarine tried to destroy all evidence by shooting the nurses,doctors and crew whilst they were still in the water.
Here is my grandfather as a fourteen year old boy (top left) when he first went to sea.

The title of the book at the moment is The King of the Picnickers which we children named him as he adored taking us out on picnics. Here is a picnic extract.

The picnics always involved some sort of activity. Primrose picking in spring, when we made little posies we tied up with green wool that he kept in the dashboard with a packet of Murray mints.  Cricket  matches and building of sandcastles if we were on a beach. Well – sandcastles is an understatement. Whilst every other family built sandcastles – The King of the Picnickers built sand volcanos. They were huge and he scooped out tunnels from the sides and the top leaving a central chamber. When the volcano was ready he would crumple up some newspaper, put it down one of the side tunnels and light it with a match. Smoke billowed out of the top and attracted every child on the beach like he was some sort of Pied Piper. We loved it. We were proud and we felt very important. He belonged to us and he had made something wondrous.
 We had two traditions on the picnics. One was that every time we drove under a bridge he’d shout “Duck” and we had to drop our heads and hold our breath until we came out the other side of the tunnel. The other was to test him on the time. “What’s the time now Grandad?” we’d ask and he would say whatever time he thought it was. Then he’d take out his big silver pocket watch, flip open the cover and show it to us. He was always right. He was not even a minute out. Years of navigating at sea and watching the position of the sun, the ebb and flow of the tides gave him a natural inbuilt instinct for the time.
When he eventually died one night aged 84, he was at my sister’s house which was next to the village church in Pangbourne. As he lay on the landing after a heart attack his last words were “It must be nearly one o’clock” He died and a moment later the church clock struck one.

Pixie has been renamed Piglie or affectionally as Piggles since she took and ate two avocado pears from the fruit bowl (high up) which we had saved for our supper, half a pack of butter which I'd foolishly left on the kitchen work top and a quantity of small eggs hidden in the garden for the easter egg hunt. Avocados are surprisingly, very bad for dogs as well as chocolate - we are all surprised she is still walking around.

Pixie's very interesting fact is that Blackbeard - the most famous of pirates (apart from Capt. Beezle) had a peg leg because he lost his real leg though diabetes.

Well, as Capt. Beezle and Rabindranath Tagore would say "You can't cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water."

Pocket (quarter Bengal) has offered his services as ship's cat. Very useful as hundreds of rats run along the ropes when the boats are in harbour and nibble the sailors' toes when they are asleep.

Meanwhile back at the farm, absolutely miles from the sea, The Rookery is a cacophony of baby rook calls and general rook chit chat.

 and the tulips are in full bloom .............

I found this trawling through my collection of poems for something nautical that I wrote years ago.
The only reason for posting it is that it is titled Pirate's Chest because other wise it's a bit of nonsense.

A pirate’s chest inlaid with filigree
Blue enamel, a sea sand script written
by an ancient hand
a curious shape not a square nor a
rhomboid but something
which is yet to be given a name.
The sort of box Pandora might
have opened.
Perhaps it is filled with winged troubles.
It looks very smug.
Ah – a smuggler’s chest then.

A gold star
not a tarantula
fallen from the cosmos
or grace as it orbited round
It glistens and twinkles
it’s five points
aimed at  the five of us left
Pointing the finger