Posted in Events, Personal life, Reading, Self-publishing, Travel, Writing

A Trip to the Van Gogh Exhibition and More Serendipitous Inspirations

In keeping with Orna Ross‘s recommendation to replenish the creative well by going on a “createdate”with yourself every week to a fun, stimulating place, I book tickets for the Van Gogh Britain exhibition currently running at London’s Tate Britain Gallery. I bend Orna’s rule by taking my teenage daughter with me, because Van Gogh is her favourite artist and this seems the perfect focus for quality mother-and-daughter time.

Van Gogh Britain Exhibition

The exhibition is even bettter than we thought it would be, demonstrating how a three year stay in London before he began to paint influenced Van Gogh’s themes and style, and how his own paintings went on to influence subsequent generations of British artists. It was not only art that influenced him, but also British literature, his favourite being Charles Dickens, and the architecture and ambience. He particular enjoyed the views from the Thames Enbankment, a constant source of inspiration to artists and writers.

Afterwards my daughter and I channel our inner Van Gogh by walking along the Embankment on our way to Trafalgar Square, via Whitehall, then back down the Mall and through St James’s Park, as I point out historical and cultural landmarks along the way. I enjoy introducing her to the landmarks that as a Londoner I grew up with, and have never felt fonder of my home city.

3 Unexpected Pleasures

But as always with planned trips, serendipity yields more food for thought. On this trip to London, three incidents stand out for me that transported us out of London and around the world:

  1. Waiting at the bus stop for our coach to London, we’re approached by what I assume to be an unremarkable old man, in old-fashioned windcheater and slacks. He is clutching a Sainsbury’s carrier bag, and I assume he’s come into Chippenham to do a bit of grocery shopping. When he strikes up a conversation with us, we discover he is also London-bound, on his way to meet a former student he taught in Macau as Professor of Intercultural Trade and Relations. He still teaches for in China, Hong Kong and Macau, for three months a year, the maximum visa period. He gives us plenty to think about on our way to London. My key takeaway is “Never judge a man by his carrier bag.”
  2. Strolling down the South Bank of the Thames before our allocated time slot for our date with Van Gogh, at the foot of the Oxo Tower we chance upon Latitude, a free exhibition of wildlife photography, an array of breathtaking pictures of Arctic polar bears, Antarctic penguins, and all kinds of animal in between, including cheetahs frolicking as playfully as domesticated kittens and a tiger apparently leaping towards the photographer with murderous intent. From a modestly tiny picture of the photographer Roger Hooper in the exhibition brochure, I recognise the grey-haired man lurking diffidently in the corner. “Excuse me, are you the photographer?” I ask. “Yes,” he says with a smile. “How many risks do you take to get such fabulous shots?” I ask, indicating the hungry tiger. “Ah,” he smiles wryly. “You’ve picked the one shot that isn’t entirely real. That tiger is the one used in the film The Life of Pi, and i had a piece of meat on a stick dangling from my hand beside the camera. I photoshopped the background in and blurred it afterwards.” That still sounds pretty risky to me. The mental image of that set-up is almost as pleasing as the resulting photo, which I can’t reproduce here for copyright reasons, but you can find out more about the photographer Roger Hooper and view his pictures on his website here. You may also be interested in his laudable charity to help build a brighter future for African girls here: www.hoopersafricatrust.org.
  3. The final surprise of the day is when, exhausted, we’re sitting in St Martin’s in the Fields Crypt Cafe, enjoying our tea, when my eyes alight upon what seems to me the most perfect piece of brick wall. The pleasing array of colours in such a neat grid reminds me of Van Gogh’s thick daubs of rich colour, and to an artist’s watercolour paint box filled with the promise of the pictures still locked inside the neat rectangles of pigment. Whether prompted by our encounter with the Professor at the bus stop, or the amusing snap of Roger Hooper apparently being photobombed by a giant panda, it also puts me in mind of the Great Wall of China and all the wonders of the world, whether natural or manmade. My daughter is bemused by my fixation with beautiful bricks (“I can’t believe you posted bricks on Instagram!” she crows later) after all the sights we have seen, but to me it seems a neat and fitting end to a stimulating day, and the perfect end to an enjoyable July.
A paintbox in brick form in the crypt of St Martin in the Fields – could be an artist’s palette for skin tones

Thank You, July, It’s Been Fun

And what a busy July is has been! It kicked off with included a week in Scotland (see my earlier post), finishing my latest novel for publication, and completing a new novella to be sent as an free ebook to my mailing list next month. (If you’re not already on my mailing list, you can sign up now via the form at the foot of this page to receive your copy in August – sorry, originally intended for July!)

I also enjoyed being a part of the usual monthly BBC Radio Gloucestershire Book Club, in which we talked this month about Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, 300 years old this year but still a cracking read. If you’d like to hear what we had to say about this and other bookish talk, you can listen again for the next couple of weeks on BBC Sounds via this link – we’re in the first hour of the show.

Our discussion about Robinson Crusoe included reminiscing about the wonderful old children’s TV series that we all grew up watching

One other highlight of July for me was starting to write guest posts for the IngramSpark blog. IngramSpark is a huge printing company that not only prints books for all kinds of publishers but also puts them into the distribution system for high street bookstores. All my books are published via IngramSpark, which means that you can order them from your favourite bookshop rather than online. I love bookshops – a good bookshop is an invaluable part of the high street and of the wider community, so I’m really glad to be able to drive trade their way.

IngramSpark’s blog is aimed at authors rather than readers, but if you’d like to read the post I wrote for them, about writing productivity, here’s the link: https://www.ingramspark.com/blog/writing-1000-words-a-day-finding-better-ways-to-measure-productivity-finish-your-book

So that’s it for July. And despite my careful plans for a productive month ahead, I wonder what serendipity August will bring?

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Posted in Personal life, Travel

Let’s All Go Down the Strand (Bananas Optional)

Tube map, Oyster card and bunch of bananas
Why the bananas? I can hear my non-British friends wondering. I explain at the end of the post.

How the emptiness of one of London’s busiest roads, The Strand, near Charing Cross Station, caught me by surprise on Saturday morning

When I was a little girl, I lived in a leafy south-east suburb of London. Sidcup, to be precise, which is on a train commuter route half an hour from Charing Cross, technically the centre of London. Stepping out from the Charing Cross Station forecourt onto the Strand meant hurling yourself into a heaving metropolis, streaming with traffic of both pedestrian and vehicular.

Never Stationary

Later, I worked in central London in a couple, in one job round the corner from Victoria Station, in another a brisk stroll from London Bridge. (What is it about my career and train stations? Suddenly my life is starting to sound like a game of Monopoly.) Every day on my way to work, I’d automatically brace myself to wade purposefully through the crowds. It’s just what everyone does in rush hour, and no-one thinks anything of it.

Village Contrast

Since I moved to a small Gloucestershire village on the edge of the Cotswolds 25 years ago, a walk down the street has become rather a different experience. Here, you may not see many people – sometimes none at all – but each that you do see will say a friendly hello, and you’ll probably know most of them by name. Whenever I return to London now, I’m startled by the crowds, until my brain reboots into its former Londoner setting.

Photo of the Strand with no traffic or people
No bananas here – the very empty Strand, London, at 8.30am on a Saturday morning

So it came a huge surprise to me to discover last month that early on a Saturday morning, the Strand is deserted. Twice in January I had to be there at 8.30am on Saturdays, and I don’t think I’ve ever been there at that time of day at the weekend before. There was scarcely a vehicle to be seen, and the only people about were homeless people sheltering in shop doorways. What I first took to be a large gathering of them outside a theatre, I later realised to be a queue for cut-price tickets released early in the day. (I thought it was odd that one of them had a Cath Kidston handbag.)

Do I Know You?

Another surprise came when someone called out a cheery hello to me. It turned out not to be someone I knew, as it would have been back in Hawkesbury, but a young, very grubby chap of about 30, huddled under a blanket outside McDonalds. I stood him a cup of hot chocolate by way of a thank you.

Photo of man with bird of prey in Trafalgar Square, London
Feeding the birds – to the bird – in Trafalgar Square, in front of Nelson’s Column, with Big Ben in the background.

The only other person I spoke to was a little beyond the Strand, on Trafalgar Square, where I strolled to kill time, waiting for the friend I was due to be meeting at 9am. My attention was drawn to the jingle of bells as a hawk flew down from the National Gallery to return to this chap’s wrist. They turned out to be there on official business, paid to patrol the Square for three hours a day as pest control. Gone are the days when tourists were encouraged to buy bags of birdseed from street vendors to feed the pigeons. Mary Poppins’ persuasive song calling us to “Feed the birds” suddenly took on a whole new meaning.

Why the Banana?

Speaking of meanings, I owe my non-British readers an explanation of the banana. In 1909, a Cockney Music Hall became a smash hit, called “Let’s All Go Down the Strand”, in which that line was followed by the refrain “Have a Banana”. I’ve always wondered what the significance of the banana was, other than the obvious connection of what was then a fruit market in nearby Covent Garden. Coming from Charing Cross, in search of a banana, going down the Strand would be a reasonable route.

I hesitated to research the meaning of the banana, knowing that most music hall songs are filled with bawdy double entendres. It turns out that “have a banana” wasn’t part of the original lyrics, but may just have been added by enthusiastic, tipsy crowds as it fitted the musical phrase that followed the first line of the verse. The rest of the lyrics are largely forgotten by most people these days. I’m not sure I ever knew them, but you can find the original lyrics here, if you’re interested. But there’s not a a banana in sight, nor are bananas relevant to the theme of the song. (Sorry if that news makes me sound about as much of a killjoy as a High Court judge.)

The Banana in the Room

Cover of Cabin Pressure box set
Turning the banana of Edwardian Music Hall into sublime 21st century comedy

But the banana in the Strand is like an elephant in the room. (No, I’m not talking about the Elephant and Castle, another district of London – I’ll save that for another day). It simply won’t go away. if you play “word association” with most British people of a certain age, and say “Let’s All Go Down the Strand”, “Have a banana” will be the first thing that comes into their heads. There have even been cover versions of the song recorded this century by – wait for it – Blur. (Listen to their version here, if you must.)

For a much more authentic and hearty demonstration of how the banana line should be sung, check out this extract of BBC Radio 4’s  smart sitcom Cabin Pressure, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephanie Cole, Roger Allam and John Finnemore, its genius writer. As the suave scoundrel Douglas (Roger Allam) might put it, the banana is in play.

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Posted in Self-publishing, Travel, Writing

A Visit to St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street

A report on my recent visit to St Bride’s Church in London
(unfortunately without a camera)

Photo of St Bride's spire
The famous “wedding cake” spire of St Bride’s Church, Fleet street (Photo by MykReeves at English Language Wikipedia)

I have a longstanding policy of whenever I’m going somewhere far from home on business, I try to squeeze in a touristy trip before or after the meeting. Continue reading “A Visit to St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street”

Posted in Travel, Writing

Puzzled? You Will Be…

On the power of lateral thinking, the joy of jigsaw puzzles, chance meetings and the fun to be had in museum shops

Wentworth Wooden Puzzle with whimsies
Where my whimsies take me

While musing in my last post about the similarities between writing stories and assembling jigsaw puzzles, I  mentioned the fabulous Wentworth Wooden Puzzles, a near neighbour, whose jigsaws include fancy shapes called “whimsies”.

Clearly the whole experience of rediscovering the joy of jigsaws jump-started my brain, because as soon as I’d finished the post, I had the bright idea of sending its link to Wentworth Wooden Puzzles, on the principle that everyone likes to see themselves mentioned in a blog post.

I was pleased to receive a lovely message back, saying they’d enjoyed my post and had given it an honorable mention on their own website. When I asked if they’d like to offer a puzzle as a prize for my readers, they kindly said yes and invited me to choose a design.

Your Chance to Win This Jigsaw

Image of jigsaw puzzle with a bookshelf design
250 piece Wentworth Wooden Puzzle – free for one lucky YoungByName reader!

This is the one I chose. I hope you like it! It’s clearly the bookshelf of someone teetering on the idea of filing all their books in colour order – something I’d love to do myself, but lack the stamina. (Have you seen how many books there are in my house?!)

The books have entertaining titles, such as War and Peas and Lord of the Pies, plus other witty details. Better still, it includes whimsies on a library theme, i.e. there are pieces shaped like things you might find in a library – a magnifying glass, a pair of glasses, a book, etc. Great fun.

For a chance to win this puzzle, just leave a comment at the bottom of this post. On Valentine’s Day, I’ll put all entrants’ names in a hat and ask my daughter (who started this whole jigsaw craze off for me) to pick one out without looking. I’ll contact the winner to arrange despatch direct from Wentworth Wooden Puzzles. They’re kindly stumping up the postage too!

Puzzles on the Brain

Suddenly I seem to see jigsaw puzzles wherever I go – a phenomenon known as the Papua New Guinea syndrome. Not because they’re keen on jigsaws in Papua New Guinea (though they may be, for all I know) but because Papua New Guinea is one of those things you’ve never heard of or heard much about, but then, like buses, several mentions of it all come along at once.

Accordingly, I spotted lots Wentworth Wooden Puzzles on Sunday in the National Gallery in London, where I had gone to meet my two old schoolfriends, Jane and Susanne. We wanted to visit the new Van Gogh Sunflowers exhibition, much hyped but actually a very simple proposition: two of the seven Van Gogh sunflowers paintings hung next to each other in a darkened room. The display looked startlingly like a child’s spot-the-difference competition. I wasn’t  surprised to see both pictures were covered in glass, just in case someone was tempted to circle the differences with a marker pen.

We didn’t take long to complete our viewing (we spotted the differences quite quickly!)  so then we sauntered, chatting, through a few more rooms, enjoying our favourite pictures and fondly remembering a trip up here with our RE teacher, Miss Hocking, a frighteningly large number of years ago. Our class went to see the Leonardo cartoon of the Virgin and Child and the Michelangelo Madonna of the Rocks, and had to say which we liked best, and why. I was on Team Leonardo.

As with school outings, Jane, Susanne and I didn’t consider our trip complete without a visit to the museum shop, where I spotted the ubiquitous Wentworth souvenir puzzles. You’ll find them at many tourist attractions, featuring relevant pictures, because they make great souvenirs – I’ve a little collection of them in our camper van.

An Artful Coincidence

Street theatre man appearing to float in air
A further puzzle in Covent Garden – how does he do it?

A less expected sighting occurred just outside the National Gallery. Seeing a cute little toddler stomping along through the rain, I thought “Ah, she looks just like that little girl who lives down the road from me!” Exchanging indulgent smiles with her mum, I realised that her mum’s face  also looked familiar. It took a second or to for the pieces to fall into place (to continue on the jigsaw theme), by which time we were out of each other’s sight. Only  next day on Facebook did I have confirmation that they were the originals, not doppelgangers – the mum had posted a photo of the little girl inside the National Gallery, which is 100 miles from our village. What are the chances of that happening, as comedian Harry Hill likes to say?

My Artfull Computer

Confronted by this reminder on Facebook of my lovely trip to the National Gallery, on a whim I thought I’d make a return visit across the ether. I needed to check the exact name of my favourite Rousseau picture, the gorgeous, huge portrait of a bewildered tiger caught in a tropical storm. I wanted to tweet it to a new Twitter friend, exchanging our favourite paintings. In my head I’d always thought of it as “Tropical Storm with Tiger”, but its actual title turned out to be a very Twitter-friendly nine characters long: “Surprised!” (I was.)

I also discovered that not only could I view my favourite painting on the Natoinal Gallery website, I could also summon up any picture in its vast colletcion, to admire at my own leisure at my desk. Use this link to fill your idle moments with wonder: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/artists/. What a gift to any writer in search of a story idea!

Even without this prompt, I’d already started writing a short story, set in one of the Gallery’s many rooms. It was inspired by that close encounter with my neighbour. This story is destined for my forthcoming flash fiction collection, Quick Change, to be published a little later this year. For free story samples and advance notice of new publications, sign up for my free e-newsletter by sending a request via this contact form.

Image of jigsaw puzzle with a bookshelf design
250 piece Wentworth Wooden Puzzle – free for one lucky YoungByName reader!

For a chance to win this fabulous wooden jigsaw puzzle, courtesy of Wentworth Wooden Puzzles, leave a comment below! 

In case you missed my previous post about jigsaw puzzles, you can read it here:

Why Doing A Jigsaw Puzzle Is A Bit Like Writing A Book

 

 

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Posted in Personal life, Reading, Travel, Writing

Why I’m Going Underground (And So Is My Book)

Map of the London Underground akak the Tube
Current London Underground (Tube) from Transport for London’s official website

Last weekend I came across a terrific new scheme to entertain bored commuters and tourists as they travel beneath the streets of London on the city’s famous Underground system, commonly known as the Tube.

It’s called Books on the Underground and does what you might expect from its name: it distributes books on the London Underground system for people to pick up and read for free. They may either dip into a book on their journey and leave it where they found it, or take the book home to read in full. The only proviso is that they release the book back onto the Tube afterwards. A branded sticker on the cover makes it clear that each book belongs to the scheme and acts as a reminder to return it.

Who Sends Books Underground?

Inceptio by Alison Morton at Stockwell tube station
Alison Morton’s alternate history novel transports readers from Stockwell to Roma Nova (Photo by Books on the Underground)

Anyone can donate a book, including its author. Many authors I know, through my book promotions consultancy Off The Shelf and the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), whose blog of self-publishing advice I edit, are climbing aboard the scheme. It’s a fun way for an author to gain visibility – literally – for their work.

I’m sending a copy of my own book underground this weekend. As Sell Your Books! has a narrow target market (it’s a self-help book of promotion advice for authors), I wasn’t sure the scheme would want it, but their lovely administrator Hollie assures me that they would. After all, authors travel by Underground too.

My Top 10 Books for Reading on the Tube

I began to wonder what other titles might be appropriate for Underground travellers. Here are the 10 titles I’d most like to find there:

  • Alice’s Adventures Underground (the original title for Alice in Wonderland, seen on old copies) by Lewis Carroll
  • Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
  • Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene
  • Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne
  • Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  • The Odyssey by Homer
  • The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford
  • Lost Horizon by James Hilton
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • and finally, ending on a lighter note: Are We Nearly There Yet? by Ben Hatch

Action Stations

Lucienne Boyce's historival novel To The Fair Land on the Underground
Travelling To The Fair Land by Tube (Photo from Books on the Underground’s website)

As a former London commuter, I’m well acquainted with the Underground network. I can easily picture the books travelling through the different stations on familiar lines. So it struck me as especially magical if a passenger picked up a book at a particularly relevant Tube stop. I’m longing for someone boarding at Covent Garden to pick up my friend Lucienne Boyce’s fab historical novel, To The Fair Landwhich opens  with a vivid scene in the Covent Garden of 1789. What a great way to escape from 2013 London for the rest of their journey.

Here are another top 10 titles that I’d like to find at a particular station:

  • A Zoo in my Luggage by Gerald Durrell (Regent’s Park)
  • Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Westminster)
  • 1984 by George Orwell (Westminster again)
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle (Baker Street)
  • Peter Pan by J M Barrie (either of the Kensington stops)
  • Babar the King by Jean de Brunhoff (Elephant and Castle)
  • The Adventures of Paddington Bear by Michael Bond (no prizes for guessing that one’s station)
  • Heidi by Johanna Spyri (Swiss Cottage)
  • The Wombles by Elisabeth Beresford (Wimbledon)
  • The House at Pooh Corner by A A Milne (just about anywhere on the grubby old Northern Line)

I’m sure you can think of more books you’d love to find Underground. Please feel free to add them in a comment below – I’d love to hear your ideas. And if you’re travelling on the Underground and come across my book, please send me a photo!

London Underground map from 1908
We’re getting there – London Underground map from 1908 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More Underground information:

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