Friday, 30 January 2015

The Landlord's Tale

I've just re-let our Granny-Flat after months of advertising in the local paper.  Perhaps November and December aren't good months for moving?  For several weeks there wasn't even a single enquiry.   OK, so old, damp mills aren't the most desirable residences in the 'bleak midwinter', but it has quaint beams and wonderful views out over the river and, of course, it sits on the river bank at first floor level, out of reach of floodwater.  Getting the right person is crucial - the flat isn't separate from the part of the mill we live in, so we don't have the normal tenancy agreements, only an informal letting contract for lodgers.  We are sharing our roof with someone. And no, because of new government legislation about the handling of deposits, we don't take them either.

The life of a landlord is not easy.  All the legislation assumes you're a money-grubbing tyrant bent on ill-treating anyone unfortunate enough to step inside your property.  It's time someone told the other side of the story.

Landlords beware!
First there was the lovely girl we rented to who acquired a boyfriend who moved in with her.  Then she left, leaving us with the boyfriend, and we quickly discovered why she dumped him.  One of the tenants worked for a courier firm and left (in a hurry) leaving a stack of cardboard boxes, obviously destined for someone else, containing lycra biking gear, toilet cleaning equipment (!!), and boxes of chocolates. A large rat was sitting on the sofa clutching a Roses Selection soft-centre.

It was not as cute as this!
Best of all was the tenant who left behind a three feet long Monitor Lizard, which I blogged about a couple of years ago.  A handsome creature, but he couldn't pay the rent.

Good-looking, but broke!
We had a few years of brilliant tenants - friendly, quiet and prompt with the rent and that lulled us into a sense of false security.  When the last of them left at the beginning of 2014 our problems started again.   We gave the flat a total renovation with new carpets and an update to the kitchen and bathroom and quickly acquired a tenant who was newly single.  But unfortunately, within a month of moving in he moved out again to go back to his wife.  No notice.  No money.

We re-advertised, which took a couple of months, and soon had another tenant who seemed a nice quiet lad.  'Seemed' soon proved to be as treacherous as the word implies. Being private landlords and not particularly well off, we can't afford to subscribe to the tenant vetting agencies that big Estate Agents do.  It was only when our tenant was arrested and banged up in Durham jail - 3 weeks into the tenancy - that we discovered, via the local papers, that he had 27 convictions - many of them for drink related violence - and had just finished an 18 month jail term.  Flat empty again.

Would have been a very good idea.
It has remained empty until this week.  As things go we suddenly had two lovely couples (with excellent references) who both wanted it.  Big dilemma!  In the end I went with the couple who had enquired first - it seemed the only fair way to do it. Hope this is going to be one of the good ones!!

Monday, 26 January 2015

Tuesday Poem: William Blake's 'The Lamb' set by John Tavener

John Tavener's setting of William Blake's poem 'The Lamb', performed by the Tenebrae Choir.  This is just one of the pieces of music featured in the Italian film 'La Grande Bellezza' - The Great Beauty.

The Lamb is one of the poems in Blake's 'Songs of Innocence'.  Though I'm not religious, I find its simplicity very moving.  It was one of the poems we had to learn at school, alongside 'Tiger, tiger, burning bright'.

There are 28 Tuesday Poets coming from all over the world - New Zealand, America, Canada, France, Italy, England, Australia, and Africa.  We try to post a poem every Tuesday and take it in turns to edit the main website, which you can find by clicking this link.  Please take a look and find out what we're all posting. 

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Once upon a winter's afternoon . . .

There's a part of my very northern soul that loves winter - however cold the wind and however bleak the trees and stone walls look with the snow blowing across them.  I still feel that lift of the heart - the excitement I felt as a child when the white flakes began to fall out of a steel-grey sky.   It was minus three degrees this afternoon, but I had to get out into it and walk up the river with the snow blowing on a wind that the Scots describe as lazy - because it goes straight through you rather than round!  There was snow cloud on the fells, so I couldn't see their summits from the river. The colours were all sepia, like old photographs.

There's been quite a lot of gale damage in the woods that line the river bank.  But my favourite oak tree is still standing - a very old tree with a trunk that would take several people to circle it with their arms.

 The next door neighbour hadn't been so fortunate, lying prostrate in the snow. One gale too many.

The wind chill was quite challenging and the temperature will go down to minus ten tonight if the forecast is right. I was very well wrapped up against the cold - more suitable for a Himalayan expedition than a walk up the river Eden. It felt very good to be outside after being cooped up inside with flu.  Now to curl up on the sofa with a good read.  Italo Calvino?  'If on a winter's night a traveller' . . .   One of my favourite books for comfort reading.  But I haven't read William Fiennes 'Snow Geese' yet though it's sitting on my Kindle.   And then there's a little voice inside nagging me about all the things I'm supposed to be writing myself. Choices!

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Women Writing Women - 'Unforgettable Books by Exceptional Writers'

So here it is at last!  The secret we've been sitting on for the past three or four months.    Women Writing Women - Outside the Box.  Seven of us, all ALLI members, got together last autumn at Jessica Bell's suggestion, to see what woman-power could accomplish in the world of Indie publishing.  This is a new experiment - both scary and exciting - and I'll be reporting back regularly on its progress.

We've put together a box-set of 7 novels with unusual female protagonists - women who don't get to feature in mainstream fiction very often.  7 Award-winning authors;  7 blindingly brilliant books.

Apart from my own novel, The Centauress, 'Outside the Box' features:

Orna Ross founder-director of The Alliance of Independent Authors, and named by The Bookseller as one of the 100 most influential people in publishing. Orna's contributed Blue Mercy, a novel about a woman who has spent time in jail for killing her tyrannical father, and is now determined to reveal the truth.

Joni Rodgers is a New York Times bestselling author, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a Discover Award finalist. Joni's novel, Crazy for Trying, features a bookish and freshly orphaned young woman who seeks to escape the shadow of her infamous mother—a radical lesbian poet—by fleeing her hometown.

Roz Morris, ghost writer and teacher of creative writing master classes for the Guardian newspaper in London, is the author of best-selling My Memories of a Future Life, the story of a gifted musician who is forced by injury to stop playing the piano and fears her life may be over.

Jane Davis, a British writer whose debut won the Daily Mail First Novel Award, contributed her latest novel, An Unchoreographed Life,  in which a former ballerina turns to prostitution to support her daughter.

Carol Cooper Author, doctor, British journalist and president of the Guild of Health Writers contributed One Night at the Jacaranda, in which an undercover journalist after a by-line, not a boyfriend, unexpectedly has to choose between her comfortable life and a bumpy road that could lead to happiness.

Jessica Bell  is an Australian novelist, singer/songwriter, Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal  whose award-winning poetry has been broadcast on ABC National Radio. Her novel, White Lady, features the wife of a drug lord who attempts to relinquish her lust for sharp objects and blood to raise a respectable son.

We're a formidable lot!

What Reviewers have said:-

"The Magnificent Seven! This is a showcase of truly inspiring authors brimming with passion, talent and the courage to push the boundaries. Beautiful, poetic, imaginative, passionate, thoughtful, witty, sensual and intelligent, Outside the Box is a feast. Unforgettable books by exceptional writers."
J.J. Marsh, Books with Jam.

"The authors of these books are at the forefront of a strong cohort of ground-breaking, boundary-pushing women writing and self-publishing literary fiction. I cannot recommend this collection highly enough." Dan Holloway, columnist for the Guardian books pages and publisher

Watch this space!

For more information visit the website at
The Box-set of 7 novels will be released on February 20th but is available for pre-order now on Amazon and at other oulets for a very, very competitive price.
Please visit our Facebook page and give us a 'like'.

We're also on Goodreads if you want to add us to your 'want-to-read' list.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Dying to Write

Are you prepared to die for what you write?

Because if you're a journalist you just might have to.

The terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris is a game-changer, not just in terms of European security, but for writers and artists.  12 members of the magazine's staff died because of what they wrote and the cartoons they drew.  Journalists are under attack everywhere: -

3 Al Jazeera reporters are in jail in Cairo in very poor conditions for reporting the news in Egypt.

James Foley and Steven Sotloff were beheaded by Isis in  2014

More than 17 Iraqi journalists have died in Syria in the past year.

And it's not just journalists - a blogger whose content doesn't go down well in Saudi Arabia has been sentenced to be publicly flogged.  Would I be writing this blog if I risked that kind of punishment?

If you'd like to read a full discussion of the issues faced by journalists risking their lives in the middle east, please follow this link. 

In Europe journalists and others who blow the whistle on the establishment are punished with stiffer sentences than a serial killer.  Bradley Manning got 35 years for exposing American atrocities in Iraq. Wiki-leaks founder Julian Asange is still holed up in the Equadorian Embassy to avoid capture, Edward Snowden has taken asylum in Russia.

It has never been a more dangerous time to be a writer.

Salman Rushdie spent years of his life in hiding because of a Fatwa issued after he wrote Satanic Verses.  This is what he has to say about Charlie Hebdo

"Religion, a medieval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today.

I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity.

‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion’. Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect."

How should we respond?   Simon Jenkins in the Guardian puts it very well -

"Terrorism is no ordinary crime. It depends on consequence. It can kill people and damage property. It can impose cost. But it cannot occupy territory or topple governments. Even to instil fear it requires human enhancement, from the media and politicians.

That is why the most effective response is to meet terrorism on its own terms. It is to refuse to be terrified. It is not to show fear, not to overreact, not to over-publicise the aftermath. It is to treat each event as a passing accident of horror, and leave the perpetrator devoid of further satisfaction. That is the only way to defeat terrorism."

But I have no doubt that in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo our governments will use it as an excuse to limit our personal freedoms even more.   And all writers will be looking over their shoulders and thinking before they write - an act of self-censorship more potent than any law.

I've just watched the heart-breaking interview on French TV with the partner of the murdered editor of the magazine.  It is deeply saddening.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Happy Epifania from Italy - and Beware the Witch!

My small Italian tree
It's the 6th of January - 12th Night in the UK and not much noticed except by the superstitious who have to whisk down the Christmas Tree to avoid bad luck.  Here in Italy it is Epifania - a big feast and a public holiday. It is the last of the great Christmas feast days.  There are church services, parades and a lot of celebrating.  Later on La Befana makes an appearance - the Witch of Epiphany - sometimes accompanied by her Three Wise Men.  It seems a strange mix of the pagan and the Christian.  La Befana rewards good children with sweets and bad children with charcoal and she has her own song, which is sung in procession or, in our village, also played by the town band as they accompany her round all the houses.

Sadly, I am still laid low by post-viral exhaustion, after a very nasty bout of Italian flu caught on New Year's Eve, and I've been watching the glorious sunny weather outside harbouring evil thoughts towards whatever malevolent spirit of Last Year or This Year that gave it to me.  Not getting too much work done either - my head is so full of virus that I can't even contemplate the Theory, or the Concept, never mind the Practise, of Anything.  But I did manage to struggle out of bed to take the tree down before La Befana flies past on her broomstick! Always did prefer sweets to charcoal.

Friday, 2 January 2015

The Hidden Legacy of World War 1

Looking back at 2014, the anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1, I've watched all the celebrations and memorials, observed the perfectly timed publications in book shop windows, listened to the programmes on war poetry, seen the avalanche of ceramic poppies in London and - among the heroes and the victims and the horrors of war - little has been said about the long-term effect of the First World War slaughter on families not just at the time, but down the generations. It wasn't just the deaths of sons, husbands and brothers that caused havoc - the ones who returned often caused much more grief.   Millions died, but millions more came back maimed both in body and mind and families often broke under the strain.

Gt Uncle Charlie in his sailor suit to the left of his mother - my grandmother is standing next to him.
My mother's family only lost one member to the war - my great uncle Charlie - a favourite brother to my grandmother, closest to her in age.   This is a photograph of the whole family taken just before the turn of the century. Charlie is the cheeky looking blonde boy in the sailor suit.

The family had a tradition of serving in the merchant navy, so Charlie was on board ships rather than in the trenches - he's listed as being killed in action three times in the records, but was finally lost in 1917.  He had a wife and young son who lost contact with the family afterwards.  We always wondered what had become of them,  but Charlie's son and his wife made a surprise visit to my mother, a few years ago, just before she died, having traced her through the records.  She was absolutely delighted.  It was a pity my grandmother wasn't there to see it.
Harry with his boxing cup
On my father's side things were very different.  His father, the illegitimate son of an Irish dressmaker and folk singer, joined the Border Regiment in Carlisle and went off to fight in France in 1914. Harry, as he was known, had been a champion boxer, sponsored by Lord Lonsdale, and he was also a footballer, good enough to play in the local league.  He had a very promising future.
A very sun-tanned Harry second from the left at the back.

Harry's football medal
Army life suited him.  He kept a diary during his time in France, which he later typed up and gave to his son.   Harry was going out with an Anglo-Irish girl from a Protestant family working in the cotton mills, Elizabeth Blair. Her father was in the Orange Order and didn't approve of her relationship with a Catholic, so he wasn't allowed to marry her before he left for France.
Harry in his private's uniform in 1914
Harry endured the horrors of the trenches, was promoted to Sergeant and gained a number of medals, which I have inherited.  He was blown up in the battle of the Sommes - gassed and pierced by shrapnel, which lodged in his arms and legs and one piece near his spine which couldn't be extracted.  But it was the mental damage that affected him most.  He came back a war hero but much changed.  Elizabeth wasn't sure that she wanted to marry him, but felt obliged to honour her promise. It was a disastrous decision, leading to a very unhappy life for both them and their children.  Shortly after their marriage my father was born - in the Workhouse, where accommodation was being given to returning war heroes.  My father always remembered the queue outside the gate at dusk every evening, odd characters and 'men of the road' - a few women - all waiting for admission.

Some of Harry's medals
Harry became a writer, worked for the Post Office - which found jobs for many disabled returned servicemen - and ran a touring amateur drama group which entertained in village halls and for private parties.  He wrote the scripts, including Cumbrian dialect monologues.  Harry was very popular and was eventually awarded the Imperial Service Medal by the Queen.

What no one saw behind the public facade, was that Harry had an obsession with little girls - he was a paedophile - something the family has always put down to his 'shellshock' during the war, exacerbated by a virtually sexless marriage.  That's something I can't comment on, but it has affected the family down three generations.   I have his medals and his memoirs and copies of the things he wrote for the newspapers, but they are a tainted inheritance.

When he died, no one could find his birth certificate and it was discovered that he had been using three different names on insurance policies and other official documents.  It was only later that his illegitimacy came to light and it explained a lot.  At the time, the registrar eventually issued a death certificate with all his names on it.  His true name was probably  Hugh Cunningham - sometimes spelled Conyngham.

Harry Slight, otherwise Henry Hugh Cunningham Slight
. War is a terrible and unnecessary thing that blights lives and has repercussions far beyond the immediate conflict.  I would like to think that 2015 will be a more peaceful year than its predecessors, but history doesn't encourage me to hope.