Monday 31 March 2008

Reading Ruminations

You may or may not know that Waitrose is part of John Lewis. In my local Waitrose recently, I discovered a free magazine called Source. Naturally I picked it up, and when I got home and got round to looking at it, being a freelance writer, I turned first to the page with publication information. Source is published by John Brown, which is a carbon neutral company. Source is free to Greenbee, John Lewis and Waitrose customers.

Unsolicited manuscripts, artwork or transparencies are accepted on the understanding that the publishers incur no liability for their storage or return. So that’s another possible market. And it looks as though their features are mainly written by freelances, while cookery, fashion and beauty pages all have internal bylines, as does part of the travel section. They publish readers letters with no cash offered but luxury gifts instead. One lucky letter writer gets an £85 case of wine – pretty good for a 50 word letter. All the letters are comment son previously published articles. I must get reading.

In magazines like this, I always like to read the ‘what’s on’ and ‘what new books are out’ pages. I see I’ve missed the New York City Ballet at the Coliseum, but the new musical, Gone with the Wind doesn’t open till April 22nd. Doubt if I’ll get to that one either; I still haven’t made it to Blood Brothers which has been on my list for years. Plenty of time to see the Cranach exhibition at the RA though – there up till June 8th. Not sure whether I fancy the Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art at the Barbican, but as the write up states, it should be fun. Exhibitions are easier than theatre as you don’t have to plan and book weeks ahead. You just have to find yourself in the area with some time to spare.

I used to do that a lot when I lived in south London. Now I’m 100 miles away, it’s not so easy. But it’s always nice to dream. So, of course, while on the greenbee website, I’ve entered myself in the draw for a trip to Venice.

Friday 28 March 2008

Little things That Mean a Lot

I’m writing a bit later today so I might have to stop in the middle to get supper. The reason for my lateness is that, not long after dropping off the recycling, I was hijacked coming out of Waitrose with some toiletries and a loaf of bread, the latter being the thing I really went in there for. I was just looking out some coins to buy a Big Issue when in walked a very good friend I hadn’t seen for some time. “Come and have a hot chocolate.” She said. So I did, and we spent a happy hour chatting over our scrumptiously naughty, cream topped drinks. I’m afraid I forgot all about the poor Big Issue vendor. Have to make it up to him next week.

After that I still had to go to the tyre fitters to arrange three new tyres to be fitted on my car next week. The fitter took his time looking them over and checking my spare and topping up the air, so what I thought would be a quick in and out turned out to be more than half an hour.

On the way home I found myself following my husband’s taxi and, when he parked, we both wound down our windows for a catch up on the day so far and what we are going to do tomorrow night. By the time I’d parked my car, let myself in, dropped off the shopping in the kitchen and bathroom, I’d been out of my office for a good two hours.

I’m not unhappy about that, though. I spend so many days in my home office, punching the keyboard with only virtual companions, it’s really great when I get out of the house and have conversations with real people. I get to use my smile muscles so much more.

I think that will have to do for today. It is time to start the supper now and I don’t think I’ll get back here tonight after all.

Wednesday 26 March 2008


I have spent the best part of today writing about the General Sherman Tree to showcase at Constant Content in the hope of a sale. This is a piece I started a couple of years ago, but then I got side tracked and didn’t do anything with it. Looking through my articles folder early this morning, I came across it and decided it was worth working up.

I was reminded of when I first found out about this tree. Hubby and I were wandering through a park while on holiday in Guernsey. We came across a large tree stump and some educational material discussing the age of trees and how they can be calculated from the rings of the trunk, and so on. As we were turning away, I saw another notice which said that the largest tree in the world was The General Sherman Tree. This intrigued me so when I got home I looked it up and found out that it is one of the giant trees in the Sequoia National Park in California.

People often ask me how I decide what to write about. Inspiration can come from anywhere. I’m always interested in how it happens for other writers, and I often write about it. I’m assured that my article, How to Get Inspiration from News Stories, is going to be in the Writer Within Newsletter that is published on the web on April 1st. As I’ve known about that since last September I don’t think it’s an April Fool.

Monday 24 March 2008

On freedom to write

I now write a blog at least five days a week – three days here and two at Writelink. In between I write articles for sale at Constant Content, send queries out to editors about other articles and write and submit what they seem to want. I also sometimes find I am thinking about what to write in my blogs at various times when I’m doing other things.

So sometimes I open a new document knowing exactly what I’m going to write about. Other times, like today, it’s that proverbial blank screen, and I don’t have a clue what to fill it with. But at least I can write more or less what I like without worrying about repercussions.

Sometimes I get inspiration from adverts in my local newspaper. The piece I wrote about English PEN was one of those. I’d not heard of it before I read about one of their events in my area. I was intrigued and inspired to find out more about it. I actually got a comment on that from The Director of English PEN. Thank you Jonathan, if you are reading this.

This morning I picked up issue 35 of Mslexia magazine. Coincidentally, its theme was ‘behind the Iran curtain’ and the main article about this discussed the problems of authors in that country, and women in particular. Succeeding governmental regimes, especially that of the current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seem bent on silencing or punishing anyone who writes anything they consider undesirable. Every manuscript has to be vetted by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance before it can be printed, and reasons for turning them down often seem completely arbitrary.

Fearful of censorship and the punishments of arrest, imprisonment, torture, ultimately even death, the lucky ones find asylum elsewhere, often in the US. Others resort to anonymous blogs but even this is proving not to be safe. The first imprisonment of a blogger anywhere in the world happened there, to Sina Motallebi in 2003.

Reading about those free to work in America reminds me of Afghan author, Khaled Hosseini, whose heart-wrenching novels, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, about his birth country, shocked me and most of the western world into greater awareness.

Friday 21 March 2008


What do you do about spam emails? I’ve downloaded the free version of Spamfighter so it’s all netted and siphoned off into a separate spam folder. And if any slips past that net, as happens quite often with one or two, I can help other people by marking it blocked so the system will add it to the spam list universally.

However, I am paranoid about something being identified as spam when it shouldn’t be. From the word go, I checked everything religiously before emptying that spam folder. Trouble is, the more active on the web I become, the more spammers are picking up my address. The last time I returned from a holiday without checking into my email account for a couple of weeks, I had to check nearly 3,000.

I think I now get around 200 a day. I say think, because I’ve recently changed my habits and tend to kick them out as they come in. I used to do it just once in the mornings, but as the numbers grew I found it very boring.

When I’m writing or doing some research on-line, or perhaps just doing some accounts work or admin, I quite enjoy the brief break I can take when the emails ping in. But of course it could be something much more exciting than spam, like a comment on one of my blog posts, a reply in a forum, a sale at Constant Content, or a request for work which can immediately change my plan for the day.

If it’s just spam, it’s easy to deal with them right away. This is how I do it now. First I look at the addresses they were sent to. If they weren’t sent to my exact address, they get ignored. If they were I’ll look at the address they came from, and if that is an obvious spam, like a casino or viagra site, I will ignore those as well. Otherwise I might click to see the full title before scrolling down further. Then – goodbye spam. In the last six months, I’ve only found two or three that I needed to read and action, and I’m confident that nothing important has been lost.

You might think it not worth the bother of having the spam filter because they could just be deleted from my inbox. But I do find this easier because I don’t have to delete individual emails or highlight the ones to be deleted. They all go at once when I empty the folder.

Spam is a pain, but I find it manageable. What I can’t really understand is what they get out of it. Could anyone be foolish enough to respond?

Wednesday 19 March 2008

I Want to Move House

We picked the wrong time to try and move house. I lived by the sea until I left home at 17 to join the WRAF. Apart from a couple of years in Singapore, I haven’t managed to live near it since. My dream is to be always in walking distance of the ocean. And this desire is becoming urgent as I get older. I really want to end my days there.

Last May I got married for the second time, to my long-term partner. Hubby and I live in my house. We put it on the market in July. We went and looked at some houses in Poole. In a suburb to the west, we could afford to buy and hubby can commute back here to work quite painlessly. We spent two Sundays clearing out the loft and the garage.

But no-one wants to buy my house. I can’t understand it. A three bedroomed terrace set back from the road, it’s not a bad house. I keep it clean and make it ultra tidy for viewings. It’s close to good schools in an area that’s relatively peaceful.

At first they said it was because we had an antiquated heating system and they couldn’t face to hassle of replacing it. So we had a new system installed with radiators and a combi-boiler. Then we spent weeks filling in vents and plastering and painting to remove the evidence of the old system and make everything look good. We ended up with some clever additional cupboard space. Viewers are impressed, but by now the market has changed. Either they can’t get a mortgage or they can’t sell their own house.

We have run out of steam and given up on the small painting jobs still needed. I’m too busy writing and doing the day to day running of the household. Hubby is tired from his weeks of early morning contracts.

I’m trying to find the energy to do some work in the back garden. It’s not very big but we’re proud of that garden. When we moved here it was just rough grass sloping down from the back gate to the house, with a few paving stones around the door and a pathway running straight up the edge to the gate. The bottom left hand corner was a quagmire in the winter.

After living with it for a few years, we got it landscaped. Now it’s on two levels, with a large walled patio, a small lawn and flower beds two steps up, and a lovely curved pathway to the gate. I remember when it was finished. I had a party out there on 1st September for all the neighbours, the workmen who had made it and a number of friends. We were still out there at midnight on that balmy evening. The left hand picture shows my pristine new garden. The one on the right is a year later.

I’ll actually be sorry to leave my pleasant house and garden, but the sea is calling. All I need is one buyer. Anyone looking for a new home in Gillingham, Dorset?

Monday 17 March 2008

PEN – Working for Freedom of Expression

All over the world, writers live in fear as they defy oppressive regimes. International PEN works tirelessly to help them. This non-political organisation, with a membership of published writers, exists to serve writers, and literature, worldwide. Its aims are to foster the role of literature to promote peace and collaboration among different nations, religions, cultures and genders, overcoming the barriers to understanding through translation, and to support the fight for freedom of expression wherever it is needed.

Originally set up in the UK in 1921, it is now a force to be reckoned with, consulted by the United Nations and UNESCO. This association of writers from around the globe has 145 centres in 104 countries. In 2007, it achieved UK charitable status after new human rights legislation was passed.

A galaxy of the great and the good in the writing world has supported the organisation. John Galsworthy was its first President. In England, he was followed by H G Wells and then J B Priestley.

Checking the websites of different centres demonstrates that although countries share common themes and aims, they also have their own priorities and projects. English PEN has a unique project called Readers and Writers, in which books are donated, and authors visit schools and communities to encourage reading and find out what people like to read and want to read.

English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee organises ‘minders’ who are assigned to incarcerated writers. They try to make and maintain contact with their charges, make friends with them and with their families, raise awareness of what has happened to them, and lobby for their better treatment and release. The writers who are imprisoned, or may just be awaiting trial, are made Honorary Members.

The centre has Honorary Members in 10 other countries. These include Myanmar (formerly Burma) where a recent addition is poet, Saw Wei, who was arrested in January for writing a poem about Valentine’s Day. His poem is said to contain a coded message discrediting General Than Shwe, the head of his country’s military junta.

The English PEN centre organises various events in the UK. They will be at the London Book Fair from 14-16 April, at Earl's Court Exhibition Centre, Warwick Road, London, SW5 9TA.

The English PEN website states that the fair will get together 23,000 members of the global publishing community, so it will be a great opportunity for international networking. As part of the Book Fair, English PEN will be holding their own events, in their Literary Café, to promote literature and freedom of speech and to celebrate their achievements so far.

Friday 14 March 2008

A Little Writing Tip

Today I took a moment from slaving over an article about Barcelona to check my account at Constant Content and found I had yet another sale. Double celebrations tonight because another one went yesterday.

It took several months of intermittently submitting articles before I was successful there, but after my first sale, there has been a steady trickle, and I have reached the payment threshold each month. I’m now saving US dollars and hoping I won’t need to convert them until the exchange rate is more healthy. Suppose it depends on how long it will take the US to pull itself out of the current doldrums.

One of the pieces I sold was about punctuation, using commas in particular circumstances. In it I was able to share this tip from a former English tutor.

‘Put commas around any words that you can leave out and still have a sentence that makes sense. The words inside the commas will be clauses or phrases that give you additional meaning.’

I’ve found this bit of advice invaluable over the years, both in my own work, when writing or editing, and when I’ve been teaching other people. It’s a really simple way to keep to grammatical rules that can otherwise get quite complicated. You have to start discussing sentence structure, dependent and independent clauses, adjectival and adverbial clauses and suchlike.

Just a little tip I thought I'd share.

Wednesday 12 March 2008

Bureaucracy in the Early Years Sector

Last night I was phone chatting with my daughter and we talked ourselves into feeling rather miserable.

Last year I helped her to set up her child minding business that she now runs from her home.

We were both amazed at the red tape involved and I spent a good few days putting together the obligatory 50 or so pages of policies that she needed to adhere to. And that she has to give to parents of the children in her care, and keep handy for when the inspectors call. She also needed a bit of financial help to make the required changes to her house and get herself allied to appropriate organisations, buy stationery, toys and equipment etc, before she was able to be registered as a child minder.

Less than a year on, and she now tells me she has discovered that the goal posts have completely changed. From September this year she will have to follow a prescribed Early Years Foundation Stage Curriculum and write daily observations and reports on each child. She is upset. Although she is a very competent child carer, with twenty years experience as a nanny, and only very positive references, she is literate but not academic, and finds formal writing difficult. It’s why she needed my help to begin with.

“Mum,” she said, “I’m not a teacher. I’m a carer. I find it hard enough to do my registers and accounts and write up incident reports. I wish I could do something else.” But as a single mother of a four year old, and with a mortgage, she doesn’t have much option. She told me that some of her friends who are nannies and were considering moving into child minding have now decided against it. Are we now in danger of losing the child minding places we have so that mothers will not find it so easy to go out to work?

I decided to do some research on the OFSTED website. EYFS (the Early Years Foundation Stage) is yet another new qualification and it appears that all child minders will be required to hold or be working towards the Level 3. Instead of one register for child minders, there will be three new registers, on for each age group – 0 to 3, 4 to 7 and 8+. Anyone caring for a child in the first two age groups for two hours or longer must be registered. Those not falling into that category can register voluntarily, as can those caring for older children, but charges will apply. I haven’t yet found details of the curriculum, but have seen examples here of how observations of babies and young children leads to planning their learning.

It all reminds me of the late 1990s when I had been working part time as a teacher of Basic Literacy and Numeracy. I had a degree, a level 2 relevant qualification, plus significant and satisfactorily inspected experience. Suddenly, in order to continue working, I would have to acquire a new level 4 qualification, specialising in just one aspect of that work. I declined an invitation for a course that I would have to pay for and which would mean two hours driving each way to attend, plus giving my hours of teaching practice to a college half an hour away. I no longer teach.

Monday 10 March 2008

Blogging tips

My Elance newsletter this week pointed me to an article by Chris Bennett, search engine optimisation expert, offering tips to grow the readership of your blog. One of these was to schedule how you’ll post and do it regularly.

I had already decided to try and post three times a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, whenever I could be at my computer on those days. Great, I’m ahead of the game, there.

Another tip was to know your target audience. That one is not new to me as I have worked in marketing. But Bennett’s point was that I should write what they want to read about.

Might dig my heels in there. I want to write what I want to write about. When I signed up here, I gave my category as Writing, Other. And I reckon that gives me loads of scope to write for an audience of people who like to write.

There’s plenty more advice in the article; some of it is beyond my technical understanding and some for people who want to get much more out of their blogs than I do at the moment. I thought I’d just keep it accessible in case the time comes when I really want to take this further.

And I’m passing on the information here, in case I do have readers who are much more ambitious about their blogs than I am right now.

Friday 7 March 2008

A Bit of This and That

The free course thing didn't work. Well it did, except it was for another course that I didn't want. I guess they must offer each one within a timescale, or something.

I’ve spent most of today researching historic hotels worldwide. My practice is to copy the exciting chunks from websites into a word document that I save in a research folder. Then I organise the material in the way I think will be most useful.

And I’ll probably curse half way through printing because I’ve forgotten to add page numbers and will have to start again. I know from experience that I’ll get pages mixed up during drafting and will never find the next bits I want without being able to put the pages back in the right order. Fortunately I always print this sort of thing on paper I’m recycling, ie it’s already been used on one side.

I certainly won’t get recompensed in one article for the research time I put in. But I don’t mind because a) it gives me lots of ideas for other pieces, and b) I really enjoy doing it. And I’m now thinking it might end up as several articles anyway.

Really I should stop and do some filing. I’m drowning in paper here is my common lament, because I feel far too drained after researching or writing, so I just push it all to one side. But it is getting a bit silly now, so I must give it some time soon.

I did take time to write my haiku diary. You can see some of that on Writelink, which, of course, I’m neglecting because of writing in here.

Do you ever feel that, whatever you’re doing at the moment, you’re neglecting something else?

Wednesday 5 March 2008


I finally decided I have to get on this bandwagon.

I'm evaluating a multi-media course on blogging from the folks at Simpleology. For a while, they're letting you snag it for free if you post about it on your blog.

It covers:

  • The best blogging techniques.
  • How to get traffic to your blog.
  • How to turn your blog into money.

I'll let you know what I think once I've had a chance to check it out. Meanwhile, go grab yours while it's still free.

That's unless I'm too late.

Krazy Kats

I’m always fascinated by where writers get their ideas from. Sometimes I look back at my own and marvel at what sparks off some research, and then where it leads.

In the recent half term, I took my four year old granddaughter to a children’s theatre performance of Clownderella. It was the familiar story of Cinderella told by a clown, with the help of props and puppets.

We had lots of fun, and I was so impressed that afterwards I looked up the company that put it on. That’s how I came to find out about the Krazy Kat Theatre Company and its work, not only of entertaining children and people who can hear, and those who can’t, but also teaching aspiring young actors in government funded workshops.

All the company’s performances incorporate sign language and audiences come away with a little knowledge of how to communicate that way. Krazy Kat employs and teaches actors with a Level 2+ competency in BSL.

Through my research I have learnt something about the life and good works of the founder of the company, sadly no longer with us, and his partner, The Artistic Director, who performed Clownderella so beautifully for us.

I can also report that the next acting workshops, offered by Krazy Kat in cooperation with ALRA (The Academy of Live and Recorded Arts) take place in April and July at the ALRA premises in Wandsworth, London. The first is a 5 day TV Acting Course and the second, also 5 days, is a Theatre Acting Course. Places are limited, of course, and will be awarded following interviews and auditions on 15 March and 17 May.

Tuesday 4 March 2008

Hillcroft College

Last week I attended the AGM of Hillcroft College. Just another boring meeting? Not for me.

I’ve been connected to the college since I went there as a student in 1976. It was my chance to open a door to getting the degree that had been my ambition since I left school at 16 and went to work doing the milkmen’s books at a local dairy. My family needed me to earn, rather than be a hole in its pocket.

Anyway, some 18 years later, with two children and an estranged husband, I got a place at the college, which was just around the corner from where we lived. And six quite difficult years after that, I had my upper second BA.

Hillcroft is known as the second chance for women in education. Lumped in with the government’s further education sector, it is one of the long-term residential colleges, the only one just for women.

For me, it did much more than educate. When I lost my husband, my confidence took quite a knock. At college, I discovered that I still had value in the eyes of other people, and I soon recognised the fellowship of women. Because I had to care for my children, I’d had to take one of the few day places, so didn’t experience the full camaraderie of the evenings and weekends. But I made friends that I still see today, although we are well scattered.

When I moved on from Hillcroft, I couldn’t break the ties. I joined the Old Hillcrofters’ Association, was elected onto its committee, and went on to become secretary. After it evolved into the Friends of Hillcroft, I took my turn as chair. We held annual weekend reunions in the college building.

The college has an idyllic setting, unlikely as that may seem for a location just behind Surbiton station in South West London. The main building is a listed Victorian mansion that used to belong the Bryant Match family. It is set in spacious grounds next to a small nature reserve, and gets visits from a resident fox and other wildlife. It’s like a peaceful oasis in suburbia and a perfect haven in which to learn.

I was a governor and trustee for many years, culminating in two years as Chair of Council. During that time I learnt of the difficulties of maintaining a listed building, keeping it suitable for all types of students and making the improvements necessary to keep up with legislation, while fighting for a share of the FE cash pot.

When it became clear that we had to expand, and might have to move, I almost said, only over my dead body, but I actually said, “I hope it’s not in my time.”

At the meeting last week, together with other College Members, I was shown architects’ impressions of a very sympathetic new development on site, alongside the old house. It should be completed in time for a relaunch in 2010, the year of the college’s centenary.

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