Category Archives: Uncategorized

What Harper meant to me

harper-lee-tease-today-160219International Women’s Day 2022 reminded me of this blog, which I originally wrote shortly after Harper Lee’s death. I thought it was an appropriate time to share it again.

Every time I hear Harper Lee’s name I’m transported back to the English classroom at high school, which was the place where I was introduced to this remarkable story of courage, prejudice and human nature. Of course, the race message will always be the novel’s strongest voice but we should not forget that it speaks with many.

The sense of mystery when I first heard the children talk about Boo Radley was one that I identified with only too well. I think many of us will have memories of ‘that weird bloke who skulked around the town’ when we were kids, or the neighbourhood recluse next-door-but-three.

I already knew that prejudice was bad when I read the book, but it brought home to me the hypocrisy of people who, on the surface, appear honest and upstanding yet project their paranoia and insecurities so they manifest themselves in disrupting and harmful ways. Of course, this is a theme that is resonating very clearly around the world at the moment.

There’s a lot of Lee’s own formative years in the book too. She grew up in a small town and her father was a lawyer. Also, her mother lived with mental illness that resulted in her rarely leaving her own home. Like so many literary souls, Harper fell in love with English at high school, which put her on the path to creating her own timeless slice of writing.

To Kill a Mockingbird was of course a lesson within an English lesson. A lesson of human nature and the inexorable presence that it is. Above all though, it was and will always be a damned good story, which in the end is the most important thing.

So, thanks again Harper Lee for opening all our eyes.

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To Club or Not to Club?

No, I’m not talking about hitting the dance floor. This isn’t that kind of blog. Though that said, throwing some shapes like nobody’s watching is a guaranteed wellness tip I can certainly get behind!

I’m talking about the book club, reading club, reading circle or whatever you want to call it. Whether it’s a classic library meet-up in person (something which I guess will have become a bit of a novelty again after the last couple of years) or as part of an online community like Goodreads, book clubs are certainly alive and well. The thing is, I just don’t get them.

If you’re still reading, either you don’t either, or you’re a tensed-up ball of book club-loving anger, only sticking this out to the end so you can take me to task in the comments. Well, please feel free! I’m not here to pour scorn on the idea of like-minded peeps getting together to discuss a book, just sharing my general ignorance of the whole thing.

If I like a book, I’ll recommend it and most often lend it to a friend. I’ll also occasionally offer my opinions of one retrospectively in an online discussions page. However, even though I’m a very sociable person, paradoxically, I’m also a bit of a loner in some ways too. I go for a run alone, I’m not interested in team sports and I like to read something in my own time and on my own terms. I guess if there’s a book that ‘everyone is reading’ or is the ‘big hit of the summer’ I’ll automatically avoid it and come back to it when all the fuss has died down. I think it’s just wanting to do my own thing, and pick up a book at random, whether it’s an old Iain Banks paperback I’ve found in the charity shop, some Sherlock Holmes on my tablet, a Michael Moorcock I picked up years ago and never got round to reading (I know, sorry!) or Dave Grohl’s excellent The Storyteller that I got for Christmas. I mix them up, don’t have a plan and just go for it.

For me, reading is a very personal experience. Certainly as far as fiction goes, it’s pure therapeutic escapism, and I want the characters to be preserved in my mind exactly how I imagined them. It’s my little world and I want it to stay that way. I say to people who don’t read fiction that really for me, it’s like a film or a box set in my mind. I love movies, I love video games and I love books. I’ve no time for the snobbery that I’ve sometimes seen on social media regarding all these. Why can’t I enjoy a bit of everything? It’s all escapism and it’s all fun. As long as there’s a story, I’m in.

Well, that turned into a bit of a rant didn’t it? I guess if you’re as passionate as I am, they why shouldn’t you meet with other like-minded people to talk about what you’re reading and share the magic? I might even join you. Just not yet.

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When writing’s a chore, get in the game!

I’ve blogged in the past about keeping irons in the fire when it comes to your writing, and it is indeed good to have a few projects on the go. These don’t all have to be novels though! When building a believable world seems like it’s the world away, the last thing you’ll be wanting to do is try to dream up another!

That’s why I have a mental list (but you can physically write one, if your a list type) of projects to work on. When I was finishing off my novella I was also Dungeon Master with a group of friends who love the escape is of a good old RPG! I started off by running a pre-written adventure, and loved it so much that I wrote a sequel to it myself. I got great satisfaction from seeing the party negotiate the dungeons and forests I’d mapped out, fight monsters I’d thrown in their path and bring some of my NPCs (non-player characters) to life as they met the part in any number of situations. If you’re a gamer yourself, writing your own adventure is a great way to keep those creative juices flowing and try out some of your imagination’s creations on a captive audience!

Another thing on my list was lyrics, though you could easily create some poetry or just catalogue your free-form thoughts. Being in bands, I’ve found it’s always useful to have some spare lyrics lying around, even if you’re not the singer!

Short stories are great too! If a crazy idea fleetingly pops into your head while sat in front of your computer – don’t let it pass and just run with it and follow where it goes. The short story format is great because you don’t have to worry about creating lots of characters or excessive world-building. It’s just about capturing that burst of imagination you had in an effective way.

And lastly, you could do what I’m doing now – just blog! There’s sure to be something that’s on your mind, and it’s always rewarding to get it out there and get some opinions. It’s a great way to share your knowledge too.

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*SPOILER ALERT*

It’s so much a part of our modern-day lexicon these days. Indeed, I’m hoping you read past that one, or else this blog would be rendered completely pointless!

Thanks to social media, and the internet in general, the latest film or book can be pulled apart, mercilessly dissected and strung up for all to see as soon as it’s released (and quite often before). Who among us actually wants to know all that stuff, if it’s something we’re passionate about? Why would someone, presumably of a like mind to us because they’re into the same kind of things, want to ruin it for everyone else? Is it just a power-crazed keyboard warrior mentality, that they have the power to put a downer on someone’s day, or is it that they’re simply just truly rubbish at keeping a secret? Is the irresistible urge just to blurt out what they know, like the knowledge is just too much for their brain?

I guess I’ll never really know what makes that kind of person tick.

Because I never went in search of my Christmas presents as a child.

I don’t want to see behind the scenes.

I don’t read blurbs for books or films.

For me, it’s always been about keeping the mystery alive. But why? Is this me desperately scrabbling for that lost childhood innocence, or merely just seeking out a bit of escapism? OK, contradiction time. I said I don’t read blurbs, but I was faced with writing one for my novella. Not everyone’s weird like me, and let’s face it, I can’t expect people to part with a bit of their hard-earned if I don’t tell them just a little about what they’re getting themselves into!

So, I gave them just one tiny stocking filler, one little sneak-peek behind the curtain. I think self-publishing has taught me a lot of things, but the willingness to dangle the ole’ literary carrot was one of the most important ones. When it comes to your blurb, it should do two things:

1) Entice the reader

2) Not give too much away.

It’s sometimes a fine balancing act. Even now, (only after I’ve finished reading a book, obviously!) I read the blurb, and quite often think that it’s giving too much away. But well, that’s just me. I enjoy being whisked away on the journey and never try to guess the end, so my way suits me fine.

Your readers however, may want a couple of the key map points laid out to help them on their way. That’s fine, but just make sure you don’t lay down too many clues as to where the treasure’s hidden.

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Change of seasons, change of format?

If you’re anything like me, your inbox has been mercilessly bombarded of late with ‘end of summer’ ‘back to school’ and ‘last of the summer savings’ emails, heralding the inevitable change of seasons that happens every year, but somehow seems to catch us unawares.

I think reading is tied in to all this. ‘Summer reads’, ‘holiday reads’ ‘curl up with a good book’ are all phrases you’ve no doubt seen or heard numerous times over the years. They’re emotive though, and this recent flurry of in-box activity got me thinking. What’s the ideal book format for the time of year?

The humble paperback is synonymous with summer. It’s more portable and less valuable, so if it succumbs to a poolside splash or some scuffs of sand, big deal! It weighs less and is smaller so easier to carry around. An oily fingerprint from your sun tan lotion can add its own story to the existing one, reminding you of where you were when you read it.

You’d be less likely to take your hardback, dust-cover volumes away with you though. After all, you probably reserve this more pricey format to add to the collection populated by your very favourite writers. Though they’re far less practical, I do like hardbacks. Aside from the pages staying open much easier, there’s something instantly scholarly about them. For me, the idea of ‘winter reading’ conjures up images of Holmes and Watson, combing through musty old volumes from the Baker Street archives by lamplight in a bid to track down their latest adversary. Oh and they look great on the shelf too!

Then there’s Kindle. Whether it’s the device itself or through an app on your tablet, the e-book format has made millions of books available to everyone, everywhere. No need to agonise over which book to take on holiday with a digital library at your fingertips. Of course, it’s great for self-published authors too, and – here comes the plug – it made my novella available instantly to anyone around the world.

An audiobook is certainly your best friend at bath time. No book-drop mishaps or steamed up glasses for the short-sighted here. Of course, they’re great for car journeys, park runs and gym workouts too, making them the perfect choice for any multitasker.

Whatever format you prefer, losing yourself in a new book is the perfect way to ease yourself into autumn.

Let me know your favourite format in the comments!

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Now’s the time to read and write

OK, you may argue that any time is a good time to do one or both of those things, but hey, let me jump on the Corona virus bandwagon for just a short time.

While it’s important to keep track of everything that’s going on and all the latest updates for the sake of our own health, it’s also important not to get bogged down with feelings of foreboding and desperation. Our own mental health is as important as our physical health and if we don’t keep our minds occupied in these times of social distancing and self-isolation, we risk putting ourselves at serious harm.

I realise that’s easier said than done in a lot of cases, but finding the time to read and treating yourself to a little escapism really can help. (Just stay away from any post-apocalyptic epics if you’re feeling particularly susceptible!)

It’s also a great time to start writing that book you’ve always wanted to write; you know, the one you spend so much time procrastinating over. If you’re in a situation where you have a lot of time to yourself – get writing. Now is the time. Not only will it keep your mind exercised and active, but it’ll help your well-being by just having your mind on something else for a while.

Of course, life goes on. Don’t lock yourself away expecting to churn out 100,000 words in a couple of weeks. Plan your day, get a routine. Work in some writing time. This could be the moment you finally get started. Or maybe you’ve already written a book and are putting off the dreaded re-draft. Again get stuck in while you can, and grow your next novel some legs.

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What is a book?

No wait, hear me out. Still there? Good.

If you’re reading this you’re probably looking for a little more than a literal answer, so here goes.

These days, books can take many forms. As well as a good old-fashioned charity shop find or a crisp new release hastily picked up from the airport newsagent before your flight, there is of course everyone’s favourite space-saver, the Kindle. Or indeed, the Kindle app if (like me) you’re slumming it just a little.

Delve into the world of online publication and you’ll have so much choice, you won’t know where to start. I’m guilty of perhaps not reading as much as I’d like to, but having dipped my toe into Amazonian waters, I discovered a few things pretty quickly.

Firstly, self-publishing makes it easier than ever before to get what’s inside your head out there for the public to enjoy. And if they don’t, well that’s their problem. At least you did it. This doesn’t have to be the 10000+ word fantasy epic you’ve been slaving away at for half your life though. These days, books take many forms. Your story may be great but you just find yourself wanting to get it over a little more quickly – that’s fine. In the world of self-publishing nobody looks down their nose at a novella.

It doesn’t even have to have a narrative either. From stream-of-consciousness ramblings and specialist cookbooks, to collected essays and structured how-to guides, pretty much anything can be a book these days.

So, get that idea out of your head and onto your screen and before long, it’ll be on everybody else’s screen as well.

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It’s fine to sit on your first draft

After months (maybe years?) of sketching out ideas, procrastinating, fleshing out characters, developing plots, then procrastinating a bit more, you’ve finally got your novel finished. Well, the first draft of it anyway. So what to do now?

It’s safe to say that nobody ever got their first draft published, so the next logical step is your second draft. The important thing is here though, don’t rush it. After all, it took you this long to get here didn’t it? Sit on your first draft for a while. Leave it alone. Don’t look at it and try not to think about it. Go off and write about something else – maybe that short story idea you’ve had simmering away in the back of your mind for a while, or even just another blog post.

This will make it much easier to look at your writing objectively when you do get to your second draft. After being immersed in your book’s own little world for months, you need some time to purposely forget some of the detail, so when you do come back to it, you’ll find it much more easy to notice all those parts you want to develop or change. And, because your brain has still been creatively active, but in different ways, you’ll be able to look at your book with fresh eyes. Who knows? Maybe something else you write may trigger off an idea on how to fine-tune that character who in your heart of hearts, you still have niggling doubts about.

Read as much as you can, too. It’s a great way to improve your own writing. Obviously I don’t mean you should go and steal someone’s idea, but you’ll subconsciously absorb lots of things you don’t even realise. After all, what you read for most of your life shaped you into the writer you are today, and you probably didn’t even know it! When you think you have your final draft ready, send it over to me, and I’ll put the finishing touches to all your hard work!

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Restoring Rivington

Whether living in Horwich as a young child or Chorley as a slightly older one, the unmistakable backdrop of Rivington was always a constant for me. What was that mysterious ‘castle’ on the hill? And was there a tower in the trees to the left as well? I can’t remember the very first time I actually went up to explore, but it could well have been on a Good Friday with my parents. The Easter hike to The Pike has long been a tradition for many in the Chorley, Horwich and surrounding areas, dating back to at least the 1800s.

riv1 sepiaAs a boy, the reason all of it was there never really crossed my mind, fixated as I was by not just those structures visible from far and wide, but bridges, terraces and secluded, overgrown pools. But as the years went by, I continued to visit from time to time, and gained a different perspective. I noticed that the walls weren’t really all that ancient, and I clearly remember the day I first saw the remainder of some black and white floor tiles. Curiosity got the better of me, so I began to dig a little deeper into Rivington’s history.

riv2sepiaIt’s a well-documented one, thanks in large part to the involvement of William Hesketh Lever, better known as  Lord Leverhulme, he of Port Sunlight and Sunlight soap fame. Needless to say, Lever was a bit of a magnate back in the day and owned a number of homes, one of which was The Bungalow at Rivington. This wasn’t just any old bungalow though. With the help of landscape gardener Thomas Mowson, Leverhulme built a spectacular terraced garden to accompany his lavish Lancashire pad. A morning stroll through the greenery would take him past pools and pagodas and across bridges, as he enjoyed the views. The whole thing was influenced very much by his travels around the world, and the Japanese and Italian gardens were a sight to behold. Following his death in 1925, Leverhulme’s home fell into disrepair and the rhododendron that were the fancy of many a stately home owner took over in his absence. Those and the ravages of time reduced this once proud home to enigmatic ruins.

Rivington

That is, until recently. My visit to Rivington in 2019 proves that I’m still a big kid, bounding around as I get caught up in the atmosphere of the day. As I round a corner though, I stop in my tracks. I’d seen pictures of the way the gardens used to be in a book once loaned to me by a family friend and for the first time since I saw those pictures, I was transported back to Leverhulme’s time. I walked along terraces, taking in the view of the ponds below…the layout of the gardens becoming more and more visible and Mowson’s design is coming to life once more. Turning another corner and my day is made complete, as I spot a group of people queuing to go inside the Pigeon Tower – a structure which had always been off limits in my lifetime.

This is all thanks to the Rivington Terraced Gardens team – RTG for short. They’re a group of volunteers who organize regular days where everyone can get involved in restoring the gardens, whether you’re a skilled fence-builder or amateur weed-puller. I spoke to some of them I encountered throughout the day, and what struck me is the collective passion not just for making Rivington more attractive to locals, but to everybody. The area, like it never has before, is becoming a real outdoor destination for people from all around the country. Hikers and ramblers will have plenty to keep them occupied, with a wealth of walks across Rivington and neighbouring Angelzarke waiting to be explored.

To find out more, I spoke to Andrew Suter, Heritage Programmes Manager for Groundwork Cheshire, Lancashire and Merseyside, the body currently overseeing the project. I began by asking him when the effort to restore the gardens began:

“There have been a number of unsuccessful efforts over the years to source funding to repair and conserve the Terraced Gardens. They are grade II listed and contain a further 11 structures which are also listed. Rivington Heritage Trust was formed in 1997 to coordinate this process and give it more focus.  They eventually contacted Groundwork CLM in 2004 with a request for help progressing a plan and then application to the Lottery Heritage Fund. The project will run until the end of 2020, with capital work due to be complete by the end of July this year.”

20190419_135542

The most obvious structural change I noticed was the Pigeon Tower. I asked Andrew more about it: “The Pigeon Tower is a grade II listed building.  It has been condemned and closed to the public for over 40 years.  As part of the work we have re-pointed the walls and chimney, replaced and rebuilt the roof, replaced all three floors and installed new windows and a door.  We have also installed a wood stove and intend to open the tower to visitors on a regular basis. We opened the building to the public for the first time on 23rd March 2019, when over 4000 people attended, with around 800 getting to see inside. We have opened it four times since, and have had queues each time”.

Not surprising! So what about some of the other structures?
“11 structures in the gardens are listed, including a few stone gate posts.  There are 5 summerhouses and a loggia which are listed. All were condemned and each have had extensive work carried out – new ceilings waterproofing and pointing, handrails and new gates and associated metalwork.  The internal floor have also been lifted and replaced. All will be open to the public again during events.”

Rivington Pigeon Tower

The Rhododendron were such a huge part of the landscape when I was a child, so I asked Andrew more about the efforts to remove them:
“The Rhododendron carried a disease called Phytophthora Ramorum, commonly known as Sudden Oak Death.  Once it was discovered, The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) ordered them to be removed.  In a way, this was a catalyst for the current project, as many of the structures and pathways had become overgrown.  The disease is still present, so Rhododendron cannot be replanted.”

So with that in mind, what kind of wildlife can we expect to see today?
“Rhododendron further acidified the existing soil.  They are also a foreign plant, meaning native insects will not predate on them, and they out-competed local flora. Since their removal, the soil has reverted to a more natural PH and native species have begun to colonise the gardens again. We are under-planting with native species and thinning the existing woodland to improve the habitat further as part of the current project.  Every year, the range and extent of flora has improved, in particular native bluebells and foxgloves are making a comeback.  This in turn provides more food for insects, small mammals and birds”.

Good to hear! So what’s next for the gardens, and what kind of events can visitors look forward to seeing?
“The capital work will be complete later this summer, new signage and interpretation will be one of the last items installed. Going forward we intend to continue to offer lots of walks, talks, education visits and a growing range of events including an afternoon tea on the lawn in July, and in August,  an annual Viking themed fancy dress hike as well as a Rivington Music Festival.  We have a mushroom festival in September, a fright night in October and a bonfire night party left to deliver this year alone.  In future years we will develop these ideas further and work to deliver an engaging programme with our fantastic volunteers, which hopefully will continue to capture the public imagination and support”.

To find out more about upcoming events at Rivington or how you can get involved, visit: www.rivingtonterracedgardens.org.uk

All pictures by Simon Brotherton

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On Communication

man wearing brown suit jacket mocking on white telephone

Photo by Moose Photos on Pexels.com

Communication is at the heart of what we do. I’m communicating with you right now, and you’ll probably communicate in several ways today without even thinking about it. Whether you’re replying to that email, accepting a LinkedIn invitation from someone that you’re desperately trying to remember, or making a call to organise an appointment, you’re communicating.

It’s ironic that in today’s age of multiple communication platforms, where news is immediate and everyone can share their opinions in an instant, poor communication is still a massive problem. Ask any employee, middle manager or company executive and they’ll likely agree that poor communication is always high up on the list of gripes. It sounds completely obvious, but communication is a two-way street.

If you’re not interested in using that article I pitched to you, just tell me. Communicate with me. I won’t be offended, because I know you get loads of submissions. Just let me know where I am, so I can ask someone else. And if you can’t get round to doing that job on my house, communicate with me – I understand that work can get on top of you. If you’ve decided you’d rather edit your book  yourself, I get it. Money’s tight – just let me know. OK, so you can’t meet up next week, just communicate with me. I won’t be angry (for long, anyway). We can do it another time. Just let me know a little earlier than the night before.

You get the idea. It’s really nothing more than common sense and the same logic can apply to everything from a simple get-together with friends to a make-or-break meeting. So, whether you’re wading through a sea of freelance submissions or really don’t think a job’s worth taking on, communicate. Everyone will be better off for it.

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