Opening Lines

One of the fabulous gifts I received at Christmas was a box of cards, each featuring the opening line from a famous book. The challenge is to identify the novel from just one sentence. I am amazed at how many I actually know and equally embarrassed by how many I don’t.

Openings are important. A good opening line or paragraph should entice, tease or engage a potential reader leaving them hooked and wanting to read more.

I recently accepted a challenge through Facebook to post covers of seven books that I love. Seven? I found it tricky to narrow the list to seventy, never mind seven, but in the end I did.

I thought I would combine both challenges: my chosen seven books and their first lines (although I admit to cheating a little with Mark Wallington’s book).

What do you think? Would any of these opening lines encourage you to read further? What’s the most intriguing opening line you have read? Or written?

The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde

My father had a face that could stop a clock.

Father and Son, Edmund Gosse

This book is the record of a struggle between two temperaments, two consciences and almost two epochs.

The Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Carroll

Just the place for a Snark!’ the Bellman cried,

As he landed his crew with care.

Curiocity, Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose

Find the Seven Noses of Soho,’ goes the legend, ‘and you’ll attain infinite wealth.’

Nine Princes in Amber, Roger Zelazny

It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me.

500 Mile Walkies, Mark Wallington

Some towns inspire. Minehead isn’t one of them. Vladivostok is, but Minehead isn’t. I was in Minehead.

Up the Tyne in a Flummox, Leonard Barras

The Rope Works fire, my Uncle Hal always said, was like Shaw’s description of a General Election in a capitalist society.

News Round-up, 2019

I apologise in advance for the self-indulgence of this post – read on at your own risk. It’s traditional as the year draws to a close to look back on the last 12 months and review what has happened. This is my 2019 reflection.

My writing

Not as much has been achieved as I would have liked, although I can boast eight appearances on Paragraph Planet, eighteen letters in various magazines including The Lady, Readers’ Digest and several gardening magazines, one fiction story in Yours (albeit a reprint), one shout-out in Mslexia’s littlems newsletter, two news reports in Writers’ Forum as well as a small competition win there.

The item of which I am most proud was the A-Z article on ‘Building Characters‘ which was published in the April edition of Writers’ Forum.

Library work

I have continued my volunteer work at Jesmond Library, including writing their weekly blog post, was a co-judge for their Creative Writing Competition in March and gave a talk about blogging at the General Meeting in October.

Buoyed up by the practical experience I gained at Jesmond Library, in February I returned to the world of paid employment and now work two evenings a week as a Library Aide in Newcastle University’s Medical School, a job I really enjoy.

Fellow writers

I visited the fabulous Solus Or in June, the home and writing retreat of Mike and Helen Walters. Their hospitality is second to none and the views from my writing desk were stunning.

I met the lovely Patsy Collins (custodian of the invaluable Womagwriter Blog) in July while she and Gary were driving through the north-east during one of their campervan jaunts. It is wonderful to meet people and discover they really are as nice in real life as their online persona led you to believe.

In August I attended Swanwick for the third time. This year I shared my writing in the Prose and Poetry Open Mic events and had an acting part in Page to Stage. Being involved really enhanced my Swanwick experience.

This autumn Newcastle played host to the ALCS AGM so I went along to support their foray to the northern region. Over lunch I chatted to Joanne Harris (Chocolat) about the scandal of rights-grabbing by certain magazines.


2019. All in all this has been a busy and fun year which, although it has produced only a little writing income, has seen me go back into paid employment but above all has given me a lot of pleasure and inspiration.

2020. Who knows what the future holds? None of us has 20-20 vision (see what I did there?). I will state my intention is to write and to submit more than I have. And if I can end the year with the same level of contentment and good health as I have now, then 2020 will be a very good year indeed.

Wishing a happy, successful and peaceful New Year to all.

Movie Star

One of the fun things I did at Swanwick this year was to act in Page to Stage. This event allows script writers to see their words brought to life. Because of the short time available to the cast and directors the scripts are performed as a dramatised reading – in fact we’re asked not to learn our parts.

The play I took part in was “Dominoes, Anyone?” written by the very talented Susanna Lewis – I look forward to seeing more of her work in the future. Susanna’s short script is set in a sheltered housing complex where a trio of residents are having trouble with the patronising warden. The facilities for filming the play were very limited, but many thanks to Steve Barnett for his hard work in putting this recording together.

Click on the link to watch Dominoes, Anyone?

By coincidence (or maybe not), one of the short courses I chose this year was ‘Acting for writers’ delivered by the powerhouse that is Jonathan Goodwill. It gave me some excellent tips on how to enter fully into the role of a character, and then by transferring those techniques to the written word to dig deeper into our MC’s thoughts and actions.

I said this was the year I was going to go brave at Swanwick.

Looking round

Old churches can be fascinating places. If walls could talk what stories they could tell of people from ages past – the rich who provided the funds, the poor who laboured on its construction and those of high and low estate who worshipped under its roof.

Sometimes there are fascinating snippets written on stone tablets.

Take for example the plaque inside St Mary’s Church in Dedham, Essex in memory of Judith Eyre “who died much lamented in the 35th year of her age… in consequence of having accidentally swallowed a pin”.

Local folklore has it that the pin fell into a Christmas pudding. It may indeed have been a tragic happening but do you not wonder whether it was genuinely an accident? Or did somebody have it in for poor Judith and, quite literally, spiked her food?

And then there is the tragic tale of Thomas Prockter Ching told at St Mary Magdalene in Launceston, Cornwall. At the young age of 22 he was shipwrecked but then “suffered a more cruel fate at the hands of ignorant savages, by whom the crew was decoyed and murdered”.

This sad story surely raises the question: if the crew was indeed murdered, who lived to tell the tale and bring the gruesome tidings home to Launceston?

But much as I enjoy looking round old churches on my own, that pleasure is tinged with melancholy. Here is John Betjeman’s poem ‘A Cockney Amorist’.

Those last four lines – they get me every time.

The Cockney Amorist, by John Betjeman

Oh when my love, my darling,
You’ve left me here alone,
I’ll walk the streets of London
Which once seemed all our own.

The vast suburban churches
Together we have found:
The ones which smelt of gaslight
The ones in incense drown’d;
I’ll use them now for praying in
And not for looking round.

No more the Hackney Empire
Shall find us in its stalls
When on the limelit crooner
The thankful curtain falls,
And soft electric lamplight
Reveals the gilded walls.

I will not go to Finsbury Park
The putting course to see
Nor cross the crowded High Road
To Williamsons’ to tea,
For these and all the other things
Were part of you and me.

I love you, oh my darling,
And what I can’t make out
Is why since you have left me
I’m somehow still about.

Kith and Kin

Old, familiar places – Gladstone’s Library

It’s interesting how words fall into disuse and yet remain within our vocabulary. If someone said ‘I met kith today’ I would not understand. Yet if they had said ‘kith and kin’ I would understand perfectly.

Kith used on its own is obsolete apart from this pairing. The phrase was apparently already a cliche back in the 13th century. It is pleasantly alliterative. I assumed it was tautological but that isn’t so.

Roo, new family member in Surrey

Kith are friends and acquaintances.

Kin are family.

Kith is derived from the Old English noun cȳth meaning a known familiar country, and also acquaintances and friends.

Hetty, new family member in Devon

My travels over the last eighteen days have enabled me to spend time with both family and friends, even if, as yesterday, it was only a brief stop to see an old friend in Tenbury Wells.

I have also visited familiar and much loved places, including my final stop here at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden. This is a library and a hotel, yet it is more than both. It holds a special place in my affections.

Penny, new family member waiting at home for me to meet

Today I travel home. I have had a wonderful time visiting new places and meeting new people.

But I have also visited old familiar places and my kith and kin.

Thank you all for helping make my travels so much fun.

Jokes and chickens

First published in ‘Your Chicken’

Q: How do you make a chicken run?

A: Creep up behind her and shout ‘Boo!

For an alternative way to make a chicken run:

Take 22 metal poles, fit into 17 metal brackets, fix together with wing nuts

Cut wire mesh to fit, carefully lift into position, secure with cable ties

Piece together 8 blocks of wood to create door and doorframe, add two metal hinges, bolt and doorstop

Add chickens

All work best carried out in blazing sunshine, making full use of unsuspecting aunt who called in expecting a cup of tea!

Joking aside, I had a great time helping my niece and her partner build their new chicken run.

And in due course I hope to be rewarded with some chick pics which I can send off to magazines in return for ready cash!

First published in ‘Chat’ magazine

I crossed the Tamar

Most towns have a famous son or daughter whose skill and reputation they wish to celebrate. Launceston in Cornwall is proud to claim the poet Charles Causley as its own.

And quite rightly so.

His poetry was well regarded by his peers, including Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and Roger McGough. He was awarded the Queen’s gold medal for poetry and later a CBE for services to literature. He died in 2003 and is buried in the churchyard of St Thomas.

For the last 10 years Launceston has held a literary festival each June in honour of their local poet.

All of which high praise was embarrassing for me because, try as I might, I could not remember what he had written! Not without some prompting from the display at the Launceston House Museum.

But here is ‘Timothy Winters’, one of my all time favourite poems (which I had wrongly attributed to Roger McGough).

Simple, direct, easy to read, a hard lesson to hear. It shows how powerful poetry can be in the hands of a master.

How wrong can you be?

Sir Francis Drake – in cool dude pose

Today I visited Buckland Abbey in Devon to see an exhibition about Sir Francis Drake.

Francis Drake was born in 1543 in Tavistock, the town where I am staying, so he is very much a local hero. And, like many famous people from history, not all the stories about him can be believed.

Apparently it wasn’t Francis Drake who introduced the potato to Europe – they were brought from Peru a few years earlier by Spanish explorers.

Did he insist on finishing his game of bowls before sailing to repel the Spanish Armada? Maybe, but only because he knew the local tides and judged it was not immediately safe for his boats to set sail. And I thought it was because he was totally laid back and a cool dude.

In Henry Newbolt’s famous poem “Drake’s Drum”, I only realised today that for years I have been misquoting the second line. I thought it was “Captain, art thou sleeping down below?”

If England is ever in peril then Drake can be summoned to protect his country by banging on his drum. I would so love this to be true but I wasn’t able to put it to the test. The original* drum, which I’m told was kept at Buckland Abbey until just a few months ago, is now under lock and key with Plymouth Museum. Now we’ll never know!

* It appears that what the volunteer guides assured me was the ‘original drum’ may in fact only have been a replica. The true drum is apparently stored elsewhere, in a hermetically sealed case, somewhere in central England. I’m imagining a vast storeroom where magically charged artefacts are stored, as in ‘Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark”.

Gown and Town

I had my last early walk along the River Cherwell yesterday morning. I really enjoyed my three days exploring this beautiful city, whilst reviving my inner student and staying at Corpus Christi College.

Longhorn cattle, Christ Church Meadow

Saxon Tower at St Michael of the Northgate (climbed on the first day for a better view of the dreaming spires)

Pelican Sundial, Corpus Christi

Corpus Christi Chapel

Oxford – Gown, Town and Beer

Fantastic, fabulous (and at times fearsome)

Plock, plock

I’ve seen some very strange and wonderful things today.

Museum of Natural History

The dinosaur footprints leading across the lawn were a hint of what was to come during my visit to the Museum of Natural History here in Oxford. Inside were dinosaur skeletons and reconstructions, as well as displays of fossils, birds and insects.

But as wonderful as the Natural History Museum is, what came next was even more fabulous.

In the far corner a set of doors led through to the amazing Pitt Rivers Museum. This collection is a repository of anthropological items and curiosities from around the world.

The Pitt Rivers Museum

Photographs don’t do it justice. Display cases crowd the ground court and upper balconies, each chock-full of artefacts from all parts of the globe.

And rather than separate items out by time period or geographical area, items are grouped by purpose and type into over 50 different categories. Hence there is a section on body changing – everything from Chinese foot binding, African scarification rituals, Maori tattooing to European corsetry. Another section looks at smoking and stimulants such as Chinese opium pipes, Betel Nut chewing in the Pacific islands, Native American peace pipes. The list goes on.

Fascinating and crowded displays

There is so much to look at. Because it remains as museums of old, everything inside glass cases with no interactive displays or high tech, it makes every display a mystery. Treasures wait to be discovered. Each time you look at a case you discover something you failed to spot the last time.

Several people had recommended Pitt Rivers to me. Now I understand why.

If you haven’t been yet please do make the journey to Oxford to experience this fabulous treasure for yourself.