Beat This Retreat

I’ve never retreated anywhere – unless you count retreating to the sideline in PE class in the eternally optimistic view that the teacher wouldn’t notice my absence (really, I was doing them all a favour). So when a wise and encouraging writing friend suggested a writing retreat to Moniack Mhor in the Scottish Highlands, I’ll admit I was in two minds.

Would I be locked away in a cell-type room with a narrow bed and room only to swing my pants?

Would everyone be earnestly writing away 24/7, too preoccupied to pass the time of day?

Would there be an enforced vow of total abstinence (from the sauce, I mean; I certainly didn’t go on a writing retreat for anything else)?

Answers: yes; no; definitely not.

My accommodation was indeed a cell-type room.img_20180507_181524775_hdr202652813.jpg

And I know it was big enough to swing my pants because I tried, – in lieu, you understand – of an actual cat. Although I doubt I could have swung my jeans. But here’s the thing: despite Moniack Mhor having numerous other writing spaces – communal lounges by wood stoves; a straw-bale hobbit house where a writer can go the full Tolkein and forge works of wonder to throw into the fires of publishing;img_20180507_205347522177698084.jpg

a stone, story-telling circle – I found that I gravitated back to my little room. It was here that I wrote the most words (9310, if you’re counting. I was). It was here that I found inspiration to begin a first draft. It was here I felt energised to keep going. I was content in my confinement. Ideas seemed to expand beyond the constriction of my four looming walls. There might not have been space on my desk for more than a laptop, cup of tea and pack of regulation Tunnocks caramel wafers (these are essential for Scottish-based writers who include them in their retreat riders), but, I reasoned, if Oscar Wilde could turn out great literature from Reading Gaol, then I could turn out a first draft of something that might or might not escape my laptop one day.

And, to be fair, I doubt his view could match this:

And although my room was next to one of the communal bathrooms (actually useful when you’re waiting, towel over arm, ready to pounce when vacated), I’d imagine Oscar was required to ‘powder his nose’ somewhat less comfortably.

Of course, folk were there to write, as was I. But my fears that my fellow inmates retreaters would be locked away all day, every day, were unfounded. There was always someone to chat with over a cup of tea (at least ten sorts of tea – and I love tea inclusivity…or inclusivitea, if you will), or to take a stroll in the forest with, or to stoke one of the log-burners with.  And it was this aspect of the retreat that I most appreciated: the community of writers.

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A tribe of scribes. (Flyingscribbler: top row, right)

We were all there because we love to write, love to share our writing experiences, and love to support and encourage each other in our writing endeavors. It was a joy to meet such a diverse group of writers; between us we had most genres covered: children’s, YA, adult, crime, script, memoir, plays, poetry…Writers don’t always get out much, but when they do, they like to talk.

Which brings me on to point three.

When the cat’s away, as they say…

Moniack has an arrangement that the writers cook dinner for each other in teams. This means, at 4pm, after a quick briefing on what/how/how much to cook, the staff leave the building. We only realised the significance of this on the final evening, when, after an astonishingly delicious Haggis dinner (OK, I was on Team Haggis), washed down by most folk with wine, and a wee dram, and whisky sauce with the haggis, and whisky in the cranachan dessert, we all realised we were home alone. Did we polish off the single malt? No, we did not. Did we dare each other to read aloud from our hard-earned word-smithing? No. Did we turn in for an early night? No, of course not.

We toured the site, room-by-room, on a giddy comparison quest. Whose room was largest; whose desk the widest; whose view the most panoramic. Childish? Yes! Writerly? Who cares! What a laugh. And, dear reader, I won. Not the largest, widest or most panoramic room prize. No. To the delight of a fellow writer who had laboured all week under the impression that she was installed in the least commodious room, I proudly showed off my small, perfectly-formed, and highly productive cell room.  “Lady Bracknell herself,” I didn’t say (but wish I had), “couldn’t have swung her handbag in here.” My new writing friends concurred, and I won the smallest room sweep stake.

And so we returned to the lounge to celebrate our week of writing, community, and celebration.

Moniack Mhor is a glorious place in a wonderful location with amazing staff and an atmosphere that inspires. I’m going back, and if the only room left is what I shall henceforth call “The Oscar Wilde Suite”, then so be it.

Although the double bed with ensuite would be nice too.

 

 

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Turning chaos into order…or pin-board procrastination.

I reached peak pin-board yesterday.

I ran out of cork to pin to ages ago; instead, I’ve been layering ideas. Thought upon thought. Plot upon plot. Names upon names. I’d begun sticking post-its to each other; sellotaping scraps of paper to more scraps of paper. So many ideas – some good, most bad – that the weight of them threatened to bring the pin-board crashing down.

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I know there’s a best selling concept under there…somewhere…

It had never been a big enough board, and of course I’d always intended replacing it with something more suited to the creation of fabulous stories. And yet….

You know how it is: I just never got round to it. But then came yesterday.

Yesterday, I blithely began another attempt to plough on with a first draft (it’s taking so long, my very patient boy protagonist will be sporting a hipster beard before he finally, if ever, wins the day). A few minutes into the writing session I was in need of a name; not a new name, but one I’d given to a character some months ago. I’d scribbled it on a post-it and…er…posted-it on the board. Somewhere. Carefully, almost forensically, I began lifting edges of post-its and scraps of paper, peering hopefully under layer upon layer, month upon month of hastily scrawled moments of inspiration. A kind of foolscap archaeology; leafing through the recent past of my writing. Eventually, I found the name I was looking for. I also found other names. Character names; street names; house names. And plot ideas. And spanners to throw in the works. And motivations. And…loads of really good stuff which I’d forgotten about, and not written in to my draft, because…I COULDN’T SEE THEM RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME WHERE I NEED THEM TO BE!

I made it to the end of that chapter and then downed tools. Time for action. To order my thoughts I needed to bring order to the chaos in front of me. A quick click here, a double-click there, and a double-quick delivery later, my new, super-sized, super-smart, and super-empty pin-board arrives.

Down comes the old. I peel away the layers; slowly revealing months, no years, of thoughts and memories. It’s like stripping wallpaper in a listed house. Who knows what marvels lie beneath that 70s flock? I find: postcards from exhibitions I’d forgotten I’d been to; a list of potential character names; a picture of me jumping for, what appears to be actual joy on my fortieth birthday; my delegate card from my first SCBWI conference.

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Where there once was chaos…

And so to my new pin-board. Is this how great artists feel when presented with a blank canvas? Did Picasso have a moment of hesitation as he contemplated a new masterpiece? Possibly. I know did. How to order my post-its? Where to place my protagonist’s family tree and the town plan? Do I place my ideas horizontally, vertically, or inspirationally in a circle? Should I clear my board of anything that isn’t related to my work-in-progress?

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Order from chaos. At last.

After some deliberation and, ok, yes, some deliberate procrastination (we all do it; don’t pretend you’ve never fallen prey… organising your books, again… nipping down for one last coffee before really, actually, starting work… sorting the washing… grouting the tiles…) I’ve done it! I finally have a well-ordered, easy-on-the-eye (and brain), useful pin-board. Ideas found with a single glance. Place names located with a flick of an eye. Plot twists remembered in seconds, not hours; remembered at all, in fact.

Yes, my pin-board upgrade might have taken all afternoon to complete, and who knows what I might have written in those hours? But the potential for better-structured, chaos-free writing hours tomorrow, was worth the hours lost today.

If your pin-board has become a post-it graveyard and you can’t see the cork for a tree’s worth of paper, it might be time to remove, refresh and re-pin your ideas. I’m hoping it will kick-start my writing and re-gear my first draft; time to move my story into the fast lane with the help of ordered thoughts and easy-to-see ideas.

Until I reach peak pin-board again. And then I’m in trouble: I’ve run out of walls.

Capitalism:1; Creativity:0

Buildings tell stories.

At least, the people inside them have stories to tell, or stories to be told.

I was considering this in New York last week. If there was ever a city whose buildings can spin a yarn, it’s this one. Think, The Hotel Chelsea, with its cast list of famous and creative residents; The Empire State whose viewing level has played host to countless stories of love and loss – not to mention an infamous skirmish with an oversized gorilla; massive department stores – Barneys, Bloomindales, Bergdorf Goodman – where staff sell hopes and dreams and too-tight jeans to harried and hurried customers; the ghosts of the Twin Towers with their thousands – too many thousands – of tales of loss and mourning and grief; glamorous apartments house even more glamerous ageing widows…think Iris Apfel; nondescript buildings in the East Village whisper the secrets of beatnik poets.

For me, it is the apartment buildings that have the most to say, simply because they contain the most people. I love to stand and look up; look skywards and gaze at the hundreds of windows, behind which who-knows-what is happening. Someone laughing here on the phone…they’ve just been told some gossip, but shhh!…it’s a secret. Someone there in tears…they’ve been dumped by text. Up top there’s a couple taking the morning off…loudly. In the lift, a man wonders if he can still pay the rent now that he’s been made redundant. At the entrance, an elderly woman with a small dog on a leash whispers in the doorman’s ear and presses a twenty into his hand: for his daughter’s education, you understand. How else can he send her to college?

Every storey tells a story.

Cycling in Central Park, the tops of hundreds of apartment buildings loom over trees. Just because these Upper East and West side addresses house mostly the wealthy and privileged, doesn’t mean they can’t tell their own stories. Even the rich have secrets: they laugh and cry; they love and hate; they live and die.

But there is a building in Manhattan which will buck the trend. It’s freshly glazed windows won’t blink to reveal. It’s heavy doors poised to shut like sealed lips. It is a building with few tales to tell because despite its size, it is mostly void of humanity and will most likely stay that way.

432 Park Avenue is a new breed of building.

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image:dberke.com

Conceived solely for a new class: the Ultra High Net Worth class (UHNW). These are folk with assets of at least $30 million. We’re not talking the 1%…we’re talking smaller percentages. This is a building which reflects the rise of the global super-rich. Even its architect, Rafael Viñoly, has said that “there are only two markets, ultra luxury and subsidised housing”. And this place is ultra.

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image:432ParkAvenue

Ultra-high. Ultra-expensive ($95 million for the pent house anyone?). Ultra-inaccessible.

Ultra-empty.

And here’s where a building’s ability to tell stories has been stifled, silenced, starved of material.  For this is a building which will never be fully occupied. It’s a building designed to be less than half occupied. Some reports suggest it will never be more than a quarter occupied. 432 Park Avenue is where the UHNW club come to park their cash. If they come at all. It’s mostly just where they park their cash. Too much wealth Sir? Don’t like the look of that domestic tax bill Madam? Why not allow your money the luxury of a multi-million dollar residence? There it can bask in the summer sun or revel in the winter snow. Allow it the space to breathe, to flex and to grow (in value).

This is a building destined to remain silent. Silent of laughs. Silent of tears. Silent of the stuff of life. And whilst The Chelsea and those run-down East Village apartments no longer resound to the creative beats of writers’ and artists’ drums (the creative class of New York having long ago been forced into an economic retreat), at least their history can testify to something human. Something emotional. Something we can all relate to.

432 Park Avenue isn’t alone in being built for the ultra-wealthy. New York is going to be littered with sky-high, tax-free bolt-holes for lonely dollars. And Europe’s not immune to this spreading canker: In London, The Tower, St George’s Wharf is 432 Park Avenue’s Special Relationship cousin, destined to house the currencies of the world’s super-elite.

These buildings are not conceived to nurture lives, loves and lines of poetry. They have only one story to tell; and it’s an ugly one. An empty, heart-sapping tale of selfishness, greed, and complicity in both.

It’s a story no-one wants to read. It’s a story I wish I didn’t have to tell.

 

All Hail Mary Berry!

I didn’t write anything yesterday.

However, I did bake a Lasagne for dinner which we shared with some friends. As I removed it from the Aga, I noticed that it was five o’clock and already dark. A Lasagne seemed just the right dish to be removing from a stove on a dark Scottish evening.

I took a photo of my Lasagne to show you, and because photos of food are supposed to add interest to a blog post which, I think, generates more readers and followers.

Unfortunately, my mobile phone photo did not do my creation justice, making it appear unspeakably inedible. Which it most definitely was not.

And I had every reason to expect my Lasagne to be a success; to have the perfect balance of moistness to firmness, sauce to meat, and softness to toasted cheesy crunch.

But why such confidence?

Because, this was no ordinary Lasagne recipe; this was Mary Berry’s Aga Book Lasagne recipe.

Mary Berry. (image: bbc.com)

Mary Berry. (image: bbc.com)

As you may, or may not, remember, we inherited an Aga with our new house and have been getting to grips with the techniques involved in baking and cooking on it. It has been a joy to re-learn how to prepare all our favourite meals; it’s been a greater pleasure to try out Mary’s Aga Book recipes for the first time.

If Delia Smith taught the nation how to cook (for American blog readers please replace ‘Delia Smith’ with ‘Julia Child’), and Nigella how to caress our mixing bowls and lick our spoons, (I call it food porn), then Mary Berry leads the field in the art of cooking on an Aga. She wrote the official Aga cookbook, of which we have two copies: one inherited along with the Aga,The Aga Cookbook one kindly donated by a family member. aga book 2The photos inside are reminiscent of 1980s recipe book photography: innocently placed dishes alongside floral displays or sprigs of fresh herbs. Food porn (are you reading this Nigella?) this is not. The recipes, though, have stood the test of time; those I have attempted are surefire winners:

Mary’s ‘Special Scones’ proved to be the best I’ve ever baked; a beautiful, break-in-the-middle rise, wonderfully moist, moorishly soft.

Likewise her traybakes. The sharp lemon slices and fruity slices were received by grateful friends with open mouths and licking lips.

Aga pizza anyone? No problem; we’ll just use the roasting oven floor like a traditional wood oven and hey presto! pizza which your average Neapolitan would struggle to say no grazie to.

And as for the Lasagne….it was delicious.

Mary Berry: can she do no wrong?

Baker supreme, consummate television performer, snappy dresser and master of the optical put-down. The looks she gave Christine this year on the Bake-Off were enough to curdle anyone’s crème pâtissiere.

If looks could kill....(image: www.mirror.com)

If looks could kill….(image: http://www.mirror.com)

In my Bake-Off dreams, Mary duels Christine out of the tent with a wooden spatula, whilst Paul Hollywood cowers behind a tottering tower of a show-stopping skyscraper of profiteroles. As I said: in my dreams.

It’s cold north of the border now; but with the Aga fired up and ready to go, I plan to test every recipe in The Aga Cookbook. With Mary to guide me, each one, I anticipate, will be as successful as last night’s Lasagne. And if one should fail, I shan’t tell you about it. Who am I to chip away at this woman’s honour. She is a God(send) to bakers everywhere.

All hail Mary Berry.

I might not have been creative with the writing yesterday, but I was creative in the kitchen. Which I’ve now written about. That’s two bursts of creativity in less than twenty four hours.

It’s shame I don’t have a photo of my Lasagne to show you. Will this do?

Is any day a Dolmio day for Mary Berry?

Is any day a Dolmio day for Mary Berry?