Chez l'abeille

Culture. Travel. Writing. My world in words and pictures


Leave a comment

The Streets of London: The Line.

Starting the walk southwardsI’m not going to write too much about this walk as it really belongs to Kate, who has cleverly set her friends the year-long challenge of challenging her. Celebrations for significant birthdays occur in different ways and Kate has come up with a genius plan: creating memories through shared experiences. Not being one for the adrenalin fuelled event, my challenge came with art loving and tracking skills required; completing “The Line” ; a sculpture walk between Stratford and the Greenwich Peninsular.

We had chosen August in anticipation of fine summer weather. Heading out with thunderstorms of biblical proportions forecast wasn’t actually part of the plan but somehow we managed to miss the downpours and successfully navigated our way along the back waters of Bow. Here are the highlights.

The River Lea and Cody Dock

It took a little while to get going as signage along the way wasn’t always the easiest thing to decipher – but we followed our noses southwards and headed into unknown territory.

The rains came down just as we had arrived at Cody Dock – a rather fascinating and curiously empty creative quarter which has been developed post London 2012. As if by magic the man operating the cafe appeared so tea and cake kept us occupied until the rains stopped and we navigated our way southwards via the DLR to the Royal Docks.

The Royal Docks

On a previous visit I had seen several artworks around the dock but there is currently only the one so after a quick photo stop we were up, up and away across the Thames via the cable-car!

 

The Greenwich Peninsular

This is a great section of the walk, which curls around the back of the tent-like O2. The artworks here fit into the environment so well that it could be easy to overlook some of them, especially my favourite,”Here”.

Still dry and now thirsty #ChallengeKate was completed! We headed to the nearest bar and congratulated ourselves with a cocktail in the sunshine.

Happy 50th Kate!!!

©Chez l’abeille  2017

 

 


6 Comments

In retreat again.

I first went on a writing retreat in 2015. At that time I found it all rather overwhelming and I remember how I was utterly in awe of the other writers and illustrators I was meeting. My overwhelming memory was of being a bit lost and brimful of doubt. I was also feeling like a real imposter. It was surprising then to hear all these feelings and more  shared by everyone at this year’s SCBWI Picture Book Retreat.

During his session on writing Picture Books, Author/Illustrator David Lucas asked us to write down a personal fear; something we felt could be an emotional problem for a character. One by one we anonymously bared our souls as each slip of paper was pulled from the bag: fear of failure, feeling the grass is always greener, wanting to please others… it turns out all picture book writers and illustrators are a fairly neurotic bunch!

“A really good book is a mystical whole.”

David had a pretty good reason for putting us all in therapy for an hour or two. He wanted us to consider those emotions that are universally understood. Through mining the seams of our own psyches we were able to explore the interplay between the particular and the universal. Shared human emotions such as feeling lost, lonely or stuck  are coloured in differently by each of us and we can use these personal experiences to create that universally appealing story. Sometimes the thing that is missing from your umpteenth draft is not the strength of your idea (The Head) or your skill in constructing the story (The Hand) but the emotion or Heart. Without this emotional connection the reader simply won’t care about your character. As David said so passionately, look to your real world and your characters can come alive.

“The real world is more amazing than we know”

We were lucky to also have a session led by Adam Stower, author/illustrator of many successful picture books but most recently the rather marvellous “King Coo”. If you’ve not yet seen this book you really are missing out! (Especially if, like me, you are a secret Molesworth fan.)

Adam took us through his own creative process and shared his fabulous sketchbook archive where we got to see his later characters emerging from earlier observations and ideas.Adam Stower We also explored in some detail the relationship between words and pictures by analysing his book “Silly Doggy”; it is only from the illustrations that the reader knows that Lily’s doggy is in fact, a bear! This empowers the reader but also means the narrator doesn’t have to lie to their audience. His use of a poster to give key narrative information was a lightbulb moment for me in solving a problem with one of my texts so thanks, Adam!

Alongside Adam we also had the benefit of Zoe Tucker’s long experience as an art director. Zoe treated us to examples of fabulously illustrated submissions and correspondence from several well-known picture book illustrators. Social media is fast becoming a key way for art directors to spot new talent. Her top tip was to be an avid user of tools like Instagram, as a way for illustrators to create an instant portfolio but also for writers as a jumping off point for possible stories.

There were many interesting discussions during the weekend, but often we returned to the knotty issue of word counts. Amongst my critique group we have recently been discussing requests from editors to cut out at least 150 words from an already skeletal text and the perceived target word count seems to tumble with every conversation. Peter Marley, Commissioning Editor of children’s picture books at Oxford University Press gave us an encouraging range of  500 – 700 words in his discussion about structure – yet he still urged removal of unnecessary text. Maybe what’s important is not the word count but making every word count!

“Picture Books are like a building – words can be scaffolding which are gradually removed”

Peter outlined his template for seeing quite quickly if a story is going to essentially “work”. He  broke down the traditional 12 spread layout even further to illustrate how the first three spreads will set up the problem and typically send our hero off on a quest to solve it. The mid-section will give the hero space to solve the problem with the twist or “kink in the road” somewhere around spreads ten or eleven, before their safe return home. I was particularly interested in this “circular structure” which in traditional fairy tales is often described as the “There and back again” model; think of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” where Gerda goes on her mission to rescue Kai and bring him home. Both are changed by this journey and the reader’s satisfaction lies in what David Lucas described as the “multiple possibilities” they have as a result of their experiences.

Dummy book

During the weekend every speaker emphasised the importance of making dummy books, so for book making newbies here’s my personal favourite; The “snip and fold quick book” method which I often use to layout my own stories. When making a dummy Peter also suggested including the cover and imprint pages – in fact mock-up the whole book so you can read it through in exactly the way your future readers will experience it.

This time, for me, the weekend passed by far too quickly in a heady mix of writing, drawing and good company. Time out to reflect and review is always time well spent and this retreat certainly provided for my head, my hands and my heart.

 

©Chez l’abeille  2017

 


2 Comments

Sometimes you win…

I don’t really consider myself as someone who wins things. True there was the under 11s photographic competition highly recommended back in 1971, a Puffin Book Club prize for something completely forgotten and some near misses with school raffles, but being the actual winner? Nah. Not something that happens that often.

By January 2017 I’d also been languishing in what felt like complete avoidance from all the agents and publishers I’d submitted to. Rejection is one thing but nothing? I’d not heard a peep from any of them and was seriously doubting myself and my capabilities as a writer. So when a flurry of excitement about a picture book challenge appeared online I was at first rather reluctant to join in.

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators regularly hosts a Slush-Pile Challenge. Unpublished and un-agented writers (i.e. ME!) can submit a piece of work which might get selected to be read by a real life proper agent who knows what’s what. The brief set by Jodie Hodges of United Agents was fairly straightforward. She was after a picture book text that featured a human child at its heart (so, no animal protagonists). A story that young children and their parents could read together that would make them laugh or cuddle, or both. Surely I would be able to find something suitable?

Having written nothing new for several months I looked back into my archive. Picture book challenges don’t come along every month so I felt I had to submit, but which one? The tortoise one? Not human enough. The space one? Not ready enough.  I did have one though which seemed to fit the bill.

Where's that tiger“Where’s That Tiger?” started life in 2015 as an exercise at the Arvon picture Book retreat. During a workshop on rhyming structures I’d scribbled some frankly painful couplets, but the kernel of an idea was there. Almost a year later I was at a SCBWI masterclass with Ellie Brough, which brought it back to mind so I’d worked on it again. I don’t usually write in rhyme but it was finished and in reasonable shape. One click later it had gone.

May 2nd 2017: Hope dashed. Part of the challenge is also to be one of the randomly selected manuscripts. My story wasn’t one of the 25 that went to Jodie. I tried hard to be philosophical about this and console myself with feeling positive I’d entered in the first place.

May 11th 2017: Hope rises again. More stories are going forward! Mine is one of them…I was just a teensy bit excited.

June 3rd 2017: “I’m delighted to inform you that you’ve won”.  And breathe. I sat in bed and read Jodie’s comments over and over again.

“This entry had a fabulous, commercial, appealing central concept, a really strong rhyming voice, a great page turn moment from spreads 6 to 7 and the clever added bonus of the narrative slowly taking the protagonist and reader to bed. I always like a text to end with a twist, a cuddle or in bed!’”

An actual literary agent had said that? About my story? I was elated.

There followed a really hard 24 hours of radio silence in which I had to ignore my critique group who were busy chatting about their “sorry you didn’t win” emails and wondering who had, then a flurry of congratulations and finally the prize itself: a meeting with Jodie to discuss my work. In advance she had asked if I wanted to share a couple of additional texts so I had sent her the tortoise one and the space one as a follow up. She was able to meet with me quite quickly so I arranged time off work and underlined it in my diary in triplicate. With stars.

On the day  of the meeting I was, as ever, ridiculously early which turned out to be a good thing as finding United Agents was a bit tricky. I wandered up and down the street for a while looking rather out of place amongst the Soho hipsters but eventually I located the secret doorbell and was settled into Jodie’s book lined office with a nice cup of tea, feeling like a real fraud! Jodie was a great host however and we spent nearly two hours discussing writing and the whims of the publishing world. One of the things I struggle with is finding a killer title and she helpfully talked through the titles of her successful books and how they take the reader straight to the heart of the story itself. The rise of illustrated non-fiction was also something we explored in relation to some of my ideas. She was very encouraging about my own stories and offered great insights on how they can be developed to increase their commercial appeal. I came away from the meeting with a head full of ideas and a real sense of positivity and encouragement to keep writing.

So I’ve wiped the slate clean and decided to move on from all those unanswered submissions. You’ve got to stay in it to win it.

©Chez l’abeille  2017


Leave a comment

The Streets of London: Pullens Yards

It started with a tweet by a publisher I follow. A mention of Pullens Yards, an open studios and a postcode intrigued me; I like to think I know many of the studios around my area but this was new to me. I had a few hours to spare before an afternoon of volunteering at a local theatre and as I had to pass through SE17 on the way I thought, “why not?”

I already knew that behind the Walworth Road in SE London there are many Victorian streets, full of original housing stock, but discovering some beautiful Victorian artisan workshops was a complete surprise.

Pullens Centre Sign

Pullens Centre Sign

The yards sit within the Pullens Estate. This was built between 1870 and 1901 by local builders, James Pullen and Son. Included in the estate design were four yards, of which three remain, Iliffe Yard, Clements Yard and Peacock Yard. The Yards were purpose-built workspaces, designed originally as a work/live spaces, something that is still seen today in several locations around Southwark.

It was a great day to visit – the sun was out and London was basking in a kind of post-election lethargy. As it was quite quiet when I arrived many of the artists were happy to chat. I spent some time in the studio of David Cowley, who seeks to capture his responses to music and literature in his paintings. His work was fascinating and I could have spent all morning chatting with him about art and synaesthesia, but there were three yards to get round so I had to move on.

The yards are a celebration of everything you know about Victorian building. From the wrought iron gates and the cobbled roadway, to the worn out staircases and arched doorways they are the epitome of the attention to detail that the builder brought to a project. Today they continue to house a wide range of artists, from Royal Academicians to lute makers, photographers, jewellers, potters…the list is endless.

I was keen to visit Tiny Owl Publishers who are based in Peacock Yard. This publishing house focuses on books which aim to bridge cultural experiences, creating the most beautiful books about love, friendship or freedoms. I had a lovely conversation with co-founder Karim, who took time to show me their latest publications and the themes they focus on. If you are a fan of picture books that really say something then have a look at their titles. You won’t be disappointed.

Back in the 1970s the workshops and surrounding flats were heading for demolition. Thanks to the far-sighted campaigners who saved them in the face of bailiffs and police, the area was saved and is now a sought after place to live. As we see the shape of the Walworth Road and the Elephant and Castle changing on an almost daily basis, I hope these small-scale spaces remain as a creative hub, continuing to bring a little beauty to our lives.

Peacock Yard

Peacock Yard

The Yards host an Open Studios event twice a year in the Summer and at Christmas. Details can be found via their website http://www.pullensyards.co.uk/

©Chez l’abeille  2017


Leave a comment

The Streets of London: Thames Path, Tower Bridge to Greenwich.

Leaving Tower Bridge

It’s almost exactly a year since I’d walked along the north bank of the Thames from Tower Hill to The Isle of Dogs so a stroll along the south side seemed the perfect thing to be doing on a late spring Sunday. Having lived in Southwark for over 20 years now I thought I knew my bit of London quite well but there were still surprises in store.

Heading along from Tower Bridge the first signs of history started to appear around St Saviours Dock. The tide was out and the Thames mud glistened in the sun, rippled with algae like some noxious ice cream recipe.

Dickens apparently described this area as “the filthiest, strangest and most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London.” I don’t know if he would recognise it today as the many warehouses and storerooms along the old Bermondsey Wall have gradually been converted into expensive apartments.

Just along Bermondsey Wall East is a collection of brass statues, dedicated to Dr Alfred Salter and his wife Ada. Both Alfred and Ada Salter worked hard to change the lives of the poor in Rotherhithe. His pioneering work lead to the establishment of a comprehensive health service in Rotherhithe, long before the NHS. He also went on to become the Labour MP with Ada becoming the first female mayor of Bermondsey Borough Council. His daughter’s cat sits on the wall watching carefully!Dr Salter's dream

From here the path turns towards old Rotherhithe, that bit of Southwark that thrusts into the Thames and loops it northwards. It also takes you back in history again to The Mayflower Pub and St Mary’s church across the way. In the pretty little church garden I found a monument to Christopher Jones, the Captain of the Mayflower who started out for the New World, with the Pilgrim fathers, from a mooring nearby. Through the churchyard, in the garden of the St Mary’s Rotherhithe Free School and Watch Tower I also discovered a delightful hidden cafe. As it was now time for a cup of tea it was a most welcome find and I was also able to do a bit of research into the school next door. It was founded in 1613 by Peter Hills and Robert Bell, two Elizabethan seafarers, to teach the sons of local sailors. You can see two children wearing their bluecoat uniform above the doorway. Free schools are seen as a rather modern phenomenon, but in a time when universal access to education was not an expectation, the money gifted for children’s schooling would have been a precious gift indeed.

The next surprise along the way was The Brunel Museum. Obviously with my Cornish heritage I have a fairly good knowledge of things Brunel – or so I thought. This is actually connected to Marc Brunel, father of the possibly more famous Isambard. He built the first tunnel under the Thames, an endeavour that took from 1805 to 1841. The tunnel is in use today but not as a foot tunnel as he envisaged. Nearby is the partner ventilation shaft to the one I saw at Shadwell, keeping the Rotherhithe road tunnel aired.

It was getting rather hot by now so the next stop along the way was the rather splendid Cafe at Surrey Docks City Farm. As a former Southwark teacher I’ve probably brought hundreds of children here for educational trips over the years but as a consequence, I don’t think I’ve ever had the time to sit and enjoy their cafe! The farm was full of squealing children and baby animals and it’s great to see that it is thriving despite the times of austerity we live in.

The farm is on the East side of the peninsular and from here you cross over from Southwark into Lewisham. This part of the docks was severely bombed during  WW2, but also played a major part in building the “Mulberry Harbours” used in the D-Day Landings, named after Mulberry Quay. Many of the docks were named for their role in seafaring life. The Greenland Dock, Ordnance Wharf, Canada Wharf and Columbia Wharf all give you a clue as to where their ships were destined.

Deptford Strand Pepys Estate

Passing through The Pepys Estate, the path turns into Deptford Strand, where a gated set of steps stand rather forlornly, heading down into the mud and debris of the foreshore. However, they once marked the site of the Tudor docks of Deptford, and are where Sir Francis Drake, newly returned from his circumnavigation of the world on the Golden Hinde, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth 1st.

Much of the Deptford section of the Thames Path is inland, so I was mostly weaving through the back streets until I passed into Royal Greenwich onto the Thames riverbank again and the Cutty Sark hoved into sight. First though I had to walk past the rather bizarre statue of Peter the Great.

Between 1697 and 1698 Czar Peter 1st of Russia came to Deptford for four months to study shipbuilding. The statue shows Peter the Great with his court dwarf and his favourite travelling chair. A large group of Russian tourists were busy placing flowers at his feet, so clearly Peter is still an important figure for many.

Arriving at Greenwich

Greenwich was busy with a Bank Holiday/school half term air so I didn’t linger long. The sky had also turned from glorious sunshine to a rather ominous grey; It was time for home after a day of local history and some great cups of tea along the way.

Tower Bridge to Greenwich: Approx 6.5 miles/10.5 kilometres

©Chez l’abeille  2017


Leave a comment

In which I go to Crete. Part 3: Rethymnon

Rethymnon (2)

It’s a few weeks since I got back from Crete but since then I have been trying to recreate some of the flavours I experienced there. It’s not so easy to track down Cretan wine in London, but having discovered a rather delicious wine from Peza in the local Oddbins and coupled it with a home made filo pastry, spinach and feta pie, today I’ve come reasonably close!

There was much eating and wine drinking in Rethymnon too. It’s a busy old town but small enough to get around comfortably on foot. It’s also brimming with restaurants. My favourite spot was Raki Ba Raki where I finally found horta, the steamed or boiled cretan greens (or weeds as I’ve seen them described) which are delicious when drowned in olive oil and lemon. The closest similar plant I have found back home is dandelions, so I might have to wait until I go back to try them again. I have read that the greek word for vegetarian is “hortofagos,” which apparently means “weed eater!”

Sitting above the narrrow streets of the old town is the fortress or fortezzo. This Venetian bastion has been around since 1580 and was designed as a place of safety against Ottoman attack. This plan failed in 1646 when the Ottomans besieged the city and the Venetians surrendered. Inside the grounds there is a mosque and an orthodox church, giving testament to the varied history of the island. The views are magnificent from the parapets and it’s easy to see how this spot would be chosen to defend the city behind it.

At the foot of the Fortezza is the Contemporary Art Museum, which has a variety of shows throughout the year.  I wasn’t too engaged with the work by the artist Nikos Viskadourakis that was on display when I was there. Through intensely worked pieces, using a limited acrylic palette of reds, blues, blacks and ochres he explored the myth of Odysseus in Hades – I guess you might need more than a passing aquaintance with book XI of Homer’s Odyssey to really see what was going on. However the building is worth a visit and in the heat of summer the aircon would be delicious.

Walking around it’s easy to see where the Venetians left their mark in other ways. The Rimondi Fountain lies at its heart, providing drinking water for animals and the people alike in times of drought. Equally the old harbour provides a lovely sheltered spot for some people watching, especially after church turns out on a Sunday morning. Despite the touristy air, there’s also a relaxing, homely atmosphere in Rethymnon, which made it a great place to finish my Cretan soujourn.

©Chez l’abeille  2017


4 Comments

In which I go to Crete. Part 2: Heraklion

20170406_173821

I was a little apprehensive about my time in Heraklion; having finally read my guide book (on the bus), I was expecting a city full of fumes and dirt. Instead  I found a delightful “Old Town” that is easy to walk around and full of  comfortable cafes and bars where I could sit with a glass of cretan wine. It also has one of the best museums I’ve been to in a long while.

Day 3: Heraklion

Arrival in Heraklion from Chania is at the imaginatively named Bus Station A. I’d deliberately picked Hotel Lato for two reasons: proximity to the bus station and the roof top bar. It was an excellent choice on both counts and I was soon checked in and heading back out again to visit the Archaeological Museum before it closed at three.

For someone who loves beautiful pottery, this museum was like being stuck in a veritable sweet shop. From the moment I entered the first room I was hooked: each and every case is crammed with stunning Minoan treasures. It was hard to focus on each one because there was always another, more attractive looking item, glimpsed from the corner of my eye! The main ground floor rooms focus on the Minoan civilization, which flourished in Crete from about 2600 to 1100 BC. Just looking at these finely considered art works gives you some idea of what was important to the people who lived on the island in this Bronze Age world. A few hours just wasn’t enough and closing time came around far too quickly.

Day 4: Knossos.

There was a surprising number of athletic types hanging out at breakfast and some probably not so subtle stalking around the cheese pastry buffet, revealed that Agrotikos Asteras F.C. were in residence, for a Greek football league match against local team OFI. So I lingered over my tea and toast for a bit until only the coaching and physio team were left and set off for the days main appointment.

Bus Station A is also the starting point for bus route 2 , which handily heads directly to the ancient palace of Knossos. This is not so much palace in the traditional Buckingham sense, more a labyrinthine township tumbling down into the valley below. I knew Knossos is bound up in the Greek myths of King Minos, Theseus, the minotaur and the labyrinth but I didn’t know that it was also linked to Daedalus of the wax wings and Icarus fame. He was apparently the architect of the labyrinth before he turned his hand to flying. As in all legends there is probably a grain of truth in the mythology and walking around the site it is not too difficult to imagine how complex this site would have been, layered up on the floors below to create a maze of buildings, rooms and terraces. Highlights were the underground clay water pipes which are very similar to the ones regularly exposed by Thames Water around my street and the “Royal Apartments”  with their hidden doors, designed to give both warmth and ventilation as the user required.

Around the site some replica murals and painted pillars help give some idea of what this site may have looked like, yet so much about the Minoans is pure conjecture. What isn’t in doubt is the sheer size of the place and the sense of culture that existed here nearly 5000 years ago.

20170406_182151Back in Heraklion it was time for some excellent stuffed squid at Ippokambos, some more home grown wine and then a stroll through the old town market area and the El Greco Park gardens back to the waterfront and my hotel where the roof top bar was the top spot for a nightcap.

Day 5: Heraklion and the bus again

The Agrotikas boys were all back at breakfast but they couldn’t hold a candle to my destination du jour – I had time before my bus to go back to the museum and catch up with the rooms I hadn’t seen already! After my day in Knossos I really wanted to see the original murals.Original fresco work from Knossos  Once again the Minoans didn’t disappoint. The ochres, reds, whites and blues which they made from the plants, minerals and shells they found around them, are still as vibrant as when they were painted onto wet plaster somewhere in the palace. Only tiny fragments remain but the restorers have managed to fill in the gaps so you get an idea of just how beautiful these walls would have been.

Time was racing by so rather reluctantly I was tracking back down the hill to Bus Station A and off to the final stop on this trip – Rethymnon.

©Chez l’abeille  2017