Today it’s twelve years since we lost Tosh. I thought the pain of grief would not be as raw now as it was in the beginning but sometimes it just jolly well is. It’s been a difficult month, with the weather being so dismal and I felt a little low. But, I spoke to my son in Thailand a couple of days ago and told him how hard I was finding it this year. He asked if I wrote to Tosh at this time of year, bringing him up to date with the family and world news the same as I had during the first year and when writing the book Dear Tosh. It felt like a good idea and I actually smiled at the prospect.
At the end of the book I’d signed off,
Love you and miss you Tosh. Bye for now. I’ll write again soon. Mum xx
I had every intention of writing again soon, but I didn’t. Getting on with life took over, and I never got around to writing another letter until today.
Dear Tosh, 14th January 2023
Today I woke up late, feeling muggy and tired. I’d been dreaming about eating, probably because I’ve been trying to lose weight so cutting down on my intake of carbs. As soon as I opened my eyes I thought of you. Most days I think of you first thing and then several times again throughout the day. Twelve years ago we were on our way to Porto, to the hospital. We had to get from Italy where we were living at the time. I was trying to remember how we go to the airport at Bologna, we must have driven but I have no recollection of the journey there or much else. I spent a few days in a world of numbness and confusion. The last letter I wrote to you was on the 1st February 2021. I cannot believe two years have almost passed and I’m sorry I have not written again before today. But here I am. I’m sitting at my desk in our cottage in Dorset. Through the window I can see the driveway of the farm opposite, the barn and the stables. Yesterday the sun was shining but today it’s raining and windy once more. The weather so far in 2023 has been dismal. The rain causing floods everywhere in the Southwest and further afield. You wouldn’t like it — it’s not good weather for graffiti!
Let me give you a bit of an update from January 2021. When Geoff and I returned from France in May 2021 I published my book about you called Dear Tosh . It’s the 27 letters I wrote to you for the 10th anniversary while we were staying in Caux, South of France. A lot of people have read it and it has helped many people come to terms with their own loss. I think you’d be very pleased about that.
I’ve not written anything big since your book, I’ve tried to write a novel but haven’t had much success. I find plotting very difficult! At the moment I’m sticking to short stories and poetry, which I find less stressful to write.
Geoff and I went to France again in 2022 and stayed near Lorgues in Provence. It was a beautiful area and Geoff did loads of cycling. Unfortunately, just before we were due to come home he fell off his bike on a cycle path, broke his collarbone, a few ribs and had a nasty concussion. Bad eh? It was quite nice for me and Jpeg the dog though, because he came walking with us for the last two weeks of our trip. Jpeg loved that! He’s back on his bike now though, albeit indoors because of our awful weather. He does 45 mins in the morning and I do 30mins of keep fit with a Youtube video. Fabulous Fifties — who am I kidding!
Sadly Jpeg died at the end of August 2022, she was thirteen and a half, so she had a good life. She was a well travelled dog. Even though you never met her I know you would have loved each other. We had her cremated and then took her ashes back to the farm in Italy where she had found us all those years before and you had convinced me we should keep her. On our way to Italy we stopped at the small village in Lorraine, France, where some of your ashes are in a beautiful village cemetery overlooking the French countryside. I shed a tear or two, I love the headstone there because it has your photograph on it. We left some of Jpeg’s ashes behind the stone so that she could be with you.
World news over the last couple of years is dire. Russia invaded Ukraine. The Climate Crisis is taking hold. I know you would be definitely behind any cause that would save our environment. There’s flooding, war, starvation . . . the world doesn’t get any better. As for the UK well it’s a disaster right now. We had three Prime Ministers in 2022! Everyone is on strike, the NHS is falling apart. We have gone back to the 1970s. I won’t say any more as it’s too depressing.
I think about you every single day, more than once, we talk about you all the time and look at pictures of you, when you were little and as a grown man. Of course I can only imagine what you would be like now. Forty this year! It doesn’t seem possible. But then again we’re all getting older year on year. Your eldest brother will be fifty this year — now that’s really something. I cannot possibly be old enough to have a fifty-year-old son. We are going out to Thailand to celebrate with him as are Emily and her girls. It will be a lovely couple of weeks. Geoff and I are going to take the opportunity to travel to Laos and Cambodia while we’re close.
Today we are trying to be upbeat about the anniversary of your death. Thinking of so many good things. We’re going to have a lovely meal, I have a new toy, an air fryer (I keep calling it an air dryer ha ha) and I’m roasting lamb, Persian style, with yoghurt and spices. I’m celebrating your life and know that if you were still around, I’d be chatting to you about my new air fryer and all the things I can make with it.
Miss you as ever. Lots of love Mum xxx
PS I tried to get a couple of walnut whips today so that we could ceremonially eat them, but couldn’t find one anywhere.
I know you loved them. I think Emily has been successful. I hope so.
On Friday 4th February 2022 I had my last glass of wine. I had answered a sort of quiz on an internet website Drinkaware — you can see it HERE if you fancy assessing your own consumption — and for the first time, I didn’t cheat with my answers. Sadly, I wasn’t at all happy with the result. You know the sort of thing they ask like, how many units of alcohol do you drink a night, or how many glasses in a week, and a few other questions too. My answers revealed the truth to me, it was a bit of a shock but, I thought that I might be a little alcohol dependent as I reached for the bottle every evening or I was having that extra glass of wine at the end of the night — that I didn’t need etc., — and this was happening all too often.
So I just decided to stop.
It’s been fine, I honestly haven’t missed the alcohol at all. I haven’t missed having a fuzzy head some mornings and I can definitely feel the benefits of living a sober life. It might be sober but it’s definitely not dull. So many people think that if you don’t drink at all then you’re boring. I’d like to think that I would never be considered boring.
We travelled to France for April, May and June, staying in the wine region of Provence for several weeks where in the past I enjoyed many glasses of their wonderful Rosé. But I didn’t even think about it this year.
What I did miss was having a grown-up drink before dinner, or sometimes when I sat down in the evening. However, during the last year, more and more alcohol free drinks have come onto the market. I find I can enjoy a ‘gin’ and tonic or a ‘martini’ and tonic. Gordons, Tanqueray and others are now producing alcohol free gin. Another of my favourite drinks is Atopia spiced citrus. All these I drink with tonic, ice and lemon or cucumber, of course.
This will be my first Christmas without alcohol. I’m not bothered. The Man hasn’t had a drink for over thirty years and it never bothers him. Also one of my sons gave up several years ago, they both drink alcohol free beer – Lucky Saint they say is a good one, but I’m not keen on beer so I’ve been testing out the wines. Nozeco is popular, cheap, about £3.50 a bottle and it’s okay. Noughty sparkling Chardonnay is good, but not cheap, averaging around £9. I’ve not seen any sherry yet…but I keep looking.
I like a drop of mulled wine at this time of year so I bought myself a bottle of low alcohol red wine (0.05%) opened a jar with bags of mulled wine spices in it. I heated the wine with water, an orange, a small spoonful of sugar, and the spice bag, let the whole thing sit on a very low heat for an hour or so and bingo — it was bloody good! When I looked at the spice jar afterwards it said on it, best before October 2011 Horrors! It was sealed, it’s spices, I’ve lived to tell the tale. We went visiting this weekend and I told them about my mulled wine experience, whereupon they produced a bottle of Vintersaga mulled fruit drink from Ikea at £2.95 a bottle, and I have to say that was pretty good too. Only thing is it cannot be bought online so a trip to Ikea looks likely. (See centre photo above).
Have a wonderful Christmas and if you, like me, have given up the alcohol, there is a lot out there to choose from . . .
If you receive my newsletter (you can sign up for it HERE on this website) you will have seen that The Man and I did rather a lot of travelling in November. November is a difficult month for me, it’s the beginning of a series of family anniversaries (births, deaths etc.,) Going away was a great thing to do. We travelled down to Le Marche in Italy where we used to live but took several days to get there stopping in Belgium, France and Switzerland on the way. All the stops were really my choice so I had to allow The Man to fulfil his dream of staying in Trieste. Which we did, for three nights at the end of November. I chose the hotel, right on the front with a sea view and The Man got us a free upgrade to include a balcony.
We were incredibly lucky with the weather. Although it turned a little cold, the sun shone for most of the time we were there and we had a magnificent view of the Mediterranean sea — until it was interrupted by the arrival of an enormous cruise ship less than 100 metres from our hotel window.
Just a few photographs of the hotel in Trieste and our view with and without the cruise ship! It was a special treat for us and we very much enjoyed it.
There was so much to see that we had difficulty in choosing but as James Joyce lived here for some time during his life, it was a must to find some of his haunts. We didn’t make it to the museum but we will next time. You can read about James Joyce in Trieste here on the museum website. We walked up the Via Roma to find his statue. I of course hoped for some inspiration. The Man was walking in the steps of a writer he much admires. We visited the James Joyce Café on our first evening in Trieste but it was closing and a bit of a disappointment. We saw one of the blocks of apartments that Joyce lived in, a pretty pink one beside the water inlet in the Piazza Sant’Antonio Nuova.
We chose to visit the Banksy exhibition which was staged in the old fish market. An enormous building with high ceilings and big windows. That was impressive to begin with, never mind the art works on display. The Man said, ‘I have never given Banksy anywhere near enough credit for his satirical observation, probably because I just hadn’t seen enough of his work. It is eye opening to see so much here.’
It was a big exhibition with many familiar pieces and many I had not seen before. There was an area containing pull-down rolls of blank paper and pens for the public to do their own piece. I couldn’t resist of course. Afterwards, I wanted to tell Tosh all about it. . . So I did.
We also chose to visit the Revoltella Museum. Founded in 1872 by Baron Pasquale Revoltella (1795-1869), one of the most representative figures of Trieste society in the 19th century. who left to the city, in addition to many other bequests, his house and all the works of art, furnishings and books it contained. Apart from wandering around the beautiful house and viewing all the wonderful works of art and furniture, we attended I Macchiaioli exhibition housed in a gallery within the building. In the words of the museum website:
The term “Macchiaioli” defines the most important group of Italian artists of the 19th century. Independent and rebellious spirits who abandon the historical and mythological scenes of neoclassicism and romanticism to open themselves to a realistic and immediate painting, without preparatory drawings, painting precisely “in stains” dense and colourful everyday life, with short brushstrokes that make the subjects much more truthful. The outlines in their paintings are blurred in an attempt to reproduce reality as it appears at a glance.
This was a movement I had never heard of. I’m not an art critic and I know very little about the history of art, unlike The Man, but even he didn’t know of it. So, a great deal to be discovered by both of us. We agreed that paintings we saw, mostly of ‘ordinary’ working people in different environments were pleasing to look at. The light and shade and the subject matter all making an impression on us. Here are just three examples:
I particularly like the young boy, painted in the 19th century but looking very much like a boy of today. The young girl reminded me of the In Summer painting I had seen in Berlin, remember? The street scene is just fabulous, the sunlight and shadow, the children playing in the street and neighbours chatting.
Here now are a three photographs of the house:
A carriage, the library and dinner for four.
As I said, we did a lot of walking. We do a lot of walking wherever we go and Trieste was no exception. One rather long and uphill stroll, took us from behind the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre to the top of the city where we found the war memorial on the hill of San Giusto. A cathedral, an old monastery and on the plateau of the hill were the remains of an old Roman forum and beside it, after climbing several steps. the memorial for those lost during the first and second world wars. There were benches dotted around and a few people sitting on the old broken down stone walls. A kind of meeting place, I thought, and it inspired me to write a short story — not finished yet —Typical I hear you say. But it will be.
A few photographs of the Roman amphitheatre ruins, our walk to the top of the city, the war memorial and surrounding area.
Finally, some photographs of the food from Trieste. We do love a good breakfast, lunch or dinner!
I enjoyed my visit to Trieste. The architecture is Mittel-Europa (so The Man says) heavily influenced by centuries of the Hapsburgs. Trieste lies in the very north east of Italy with Slovenia and Croatia on its borders. It was Austrian for many years and was the principal port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The food has Teutonic influences (the pastries magnificent). It’s a city of great interest to literary and historical buffs and a must visit if you are either of these. We’re planning a prolonged visit next year so watch this space.
Once again we travelled on the train, this time to Savignyplatz. We had arranged to meet a German friend, Oliva. She had noticed we were in Berlin from my posts on Instagram and sent a message telling us that she was now living in Berlin. We had not seen each other for some years, not since the days when we all lived in Italy. I asked her to book a table for lunch where we could eat traditional German food. This she did. More later.
We arrived early at Savignyplatz, and The Man decided it would be a good idea to walk along the Kurfürstendamm, this was centre of West Berlin during the partition era and the main shopping street. Armani, crazy expensive shoes that I didn’t even like. Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Versace, Victoria Beckham, to name a few. Interesting to look at but I wasn’t tempted to buy anything or even try something on. I don’t know if it’s my age but I’m just not bothered about owning any designer stuff. I don’t like bling and it is beyond my comprehension that a minority of people can purchase things in these shops whilst the majority are looking for money to feed the family and keep them warm. I mean €995 for a pair of trainers?!?! But, as I said, it was interesting to walk along the street and a few of the security guards outside shop doors were quite attractive. . . ha ha ha. We sat outside an upmarket coffee shop to take an Americano with hot milk on the side (The Man) and a small cappuccino (me) and had fun, people watching.
The Dicke Wirtin restaurant was exactly how I thought it would be. In my work in progress, I have my characters dining at Aschingers, which no longer exists, well if it does, I couldn’t find it. However, The Dicke Wirtin (The Fat Landlady) was, I imagine, a close resemblance to Aschingers. What struck me was the amount of dark wood; balustrades divided those dining at tables on the raised platform. High tables with bar stools, and smaller tables with bentwood chairs, or high-backed bench seats with flowery cushions. The place was overloaded with pictures, pottery beer mugs, china cups and trinkets and memorabilia. Some of the walls were papered with a montage of photographs from over the years. The ambience around all this suggested a social history of artists, writers, activists, philosophers and political dissidents, deep in discussion around the tables whilst eating their cabbage soup, bread and cheese or just necking a stein of beer.
The menu was indeed German. I chose, Riesenbratwurst mit Rotkohl und Petersilienkartoffeln, (giant bratwurst with red cabbage, boiled parsley-potatoes and gravy). It did not disappoint; but I had indigestion all afternoon and well into the evening and the red cabbage had a little too much bay in it for me. Still I don’t ever have to eat it again. The Man chose, Königsberger Klopse mit Rote und Salzkartoffen, (meat balls in a white sauce, beetroot and boiled potatoes). It looked insipid but apparently it tasted fine, Oliva played safe and had the soup of the day. Maybe I should have followed her lead but I really wanted the bratwurst. Perhaps a giant one was a little over the top.
Before we left the area, we visited a huge bookshop under the arches of the railway station. The Man bought a chunky Magnum photographic book with photos of Tours de France over the years. I bought a ‘then and now’ book of photographs of Berlin. Very helpful for my research.
Big walking day today. Took the S-Bahn from Jannowitzbrücke station (a ten-minute walk from our hotel — have I already told you that? The S-Bahn is above ground and extends beyond the inner city to the suburbs. We were heading for Potsdam. I don’t know if it’s because I was only born five years after the second world war, which meant it was still very much spoken of in my childhood, but the scenery and stations that we passed on our train trip to Potsdam seemed to be full of sights that reminded me of stories that I’d heard. I could imagine people running through the woods looking either foraging for food or looking for a place to hide. I could ‘see’ the trucks and soldiers. It was a little chilling. We stopped at Wannsee station where Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, Goebbels and others agreed the ‘Final Solution’. The sign for the station was written in Teutonic Script font, also scary. But, moving on, because it was all a very long time ago and I don’t want to dwell on it here, as today’s Germany is not that of the 1930’s and 1940s.
It was Oliva who suggested Potsdam as a must to visit and how right she was. Over the last few years, extensive renovations have taken place. As we walked from the station towards the Sanssouci Palace (the main attraction) we detoured to stroll around the Dutch Quarter of the town. It was easy to identify; the architecture and the bicycles a real giveaway! Loved it, as I did other areas of Potsdam. I think I could easily spend a few months there, in the right sort of apartment with a balcony…hmm wishful thinking, probably far too expensive.
It took well over half-an-hour to walk to the palace gates as we didn’t take the direct route from the station. A sign on the gate said New Palace 1.5k. You could see it in the distance, and it seemed much closer than 1.5k. But. . . it wasn’t, in fact I think it might have been 2k! We walked it anyway. All the way down — and all the way back! Past the Old Sanssouci Palace, the Orangery, the Italian gardens. It was breath taking in its vastness. The grounds extending to many acres and the palace magnificent at the end of its driveway. We didn’t go in. In fact, I’m not sure it was open to the public.
We both loved Potsdam but our legs and feet did not appreciate our enthusiasm. After stopping for a quick ‘bowl dinner’ at Dean and David’s (a great little restaurant chain – it was our second visit) we headed straight back to the hotel and a quiet evening in our room playing cards and after around 12 kms, resting our tired limbs.
The forecast for Saturday wasn’t good, rainy and dull. The Man had a desire to visit the Arminius indoor market in Moabit, where we thought we might pick up brunch. As you might expect it was a very large, brick, purpose built, market hall with high ceilings and glass windows around the top of the walls. The smell when we walked in teased the taste buds; frying bacon, waffles with syrup, coffee etc., We opted for the all you can eat brunch. We paid €37 each and were given a wrist band to prove it. The menu included unlimited Prosecco (which we didn’t have because neither of us drink alcohol). The friendly waiter showed us to a table and immediately brought us a huge pot of coffee. All you had to do was visit any one of a number of stalls selling different breakfast food, fill your plates, return to your table and eat. You could do this as many times as you liked from 10am until 2pm. Needless to say, we didn’t pace ourselves very well, and only managed about an hour and a half of eating. All this scoffing was accompanied by a piano player! Also, there was a very large table for friends and family to gather around. It has a sign above it saying Die Mutter aller Tische, The Mother of all Tables.
The rain was rather heavy by the time we left. We took the train back to Alexanderplatz and went to the Alte Nationalgalerie, a magnificent building. We wandered around and looked at many paintings — which is what you do in an art gallery — a favourite of mine was a Renoir called In Summer. It’s of a young girl sitting in the garden looking pensive. I was inspired to write a story from it. Sounds a bit trite but I felt she spoke to me.
Another painting that has stuck in my mind is The Foot of The Artist, by realist artist Adolf Menzel. I couldn’t stop staring at it. As yet though, it has not inspired a story.
The Man is fond of sculpture, me not so much, but I’ve included a photograph above of his particular favourite from the day, a stevedore from Wilhelmshaven.
We loved Berlin and I look forward to visiting again. There’s so much to see and do and it’s a wonderful city. If you haven’t visited yet I can highly recommend that you do so as soon as possible!.
We flew from Bristol to Berlin on Sunday 25th September and after dropping our bags at the hotel and having a bite to eat we took a short walk to Alexander Platz, which is when we discovered that the Berlin Marathon had been run earlier in the day. There were lots of road blocks and barriers erected everywhere, and a great many tired looking people filling the restaurants — and their stomachs — sporting finishers medallions around their necks.
I immediately loved the vibrant atmosphere in the famous Alexanderplatz. Young people milling around or sitting in groups drinking and eating. The pervading smell of doughnuts, fried onions, and other street food assailed my nose. It was exciting. Equally delightful were the backstreet areas and their small squares with trees.
Below is the Neptune Fountain to be found in the gardens behind Alexander Platz. It was originally situated outside the City Hall in the Palace Square.
Continue reading to see where and what The Man and I got up to on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday:
We walked from our hotel in Mitte, to Unter den Linden, past the Humboldt University, up to the Brandenburg Gate. I wanted to have coffee in the famous Adlon Hotel but it was closed to non-residents. However, they did own a little coffee shop right next to the hotel so we went in there to have our breakfast. We were in Berlin for me to do some research but also as tourists because neither of us had ever been to the city.
After our breakfast we walked to the Holocaust Memorial. A unique memorial which, in it’s simple complexity (if that makes sense) took me to a strange and thoughtful place where I spent a few moments to contemplate the horror and pointlessness of war, the loss of so many lives and. . . the human race never learns — at least our leaders do not.
From the memorial we made our way through the Tiergarten which was much bigger than I ever imagined and we only walked through a tiny part of it.
We ventured to Charlottenburg, an area I was particularly interested in for my research. Our first time on the U-Bahn. The payment system was a little unnerving but actually, once we got the hang of it, very easy. Once you have bought a ticket, either for a single trip or another option such as a twenty-four hour ticket for A, AB or ABC zones, then you validate it and that’s it! No barriers to wait at, no queuing behind someone who’s app won’t work, or their ticket doesn’t scan… it’s not at all stressful. We didn’t get lost once. We walked from the Sophie-Charlotte-Platz station to the Charlottenburg Palace, passing through a fairly affluent residential area, with wide tree lined streets, big houses or apartments. The architecture dating from 19th and early 20th century, some of which managed to survive the WW2 bombing of Berlin.
The palace, both the old and the ‘new’ extension, was interesting and historical. I often don’t bother with the audio guide but we did this time and I would highly recommend using them. It didn’t cost any extra, but enhanced my tour of the palace by explaining the functions of the rooms, the paintings, furniture and history of the place. So much more enjoyable than just wandering through the rooms randomly and reading a few information labels on the walls. One of my favourite rooms was the Gold Ballroom — it took all my restraint not to waltz down the room (in fact I did do a little turn or two 😊). Peruse the photographs in the slide show from the U-bahn to gardens of the palace.
Not far from our hotel (less than a ten minute walk) was the Märkisches Museum. It opened in1908 after several years of construction. The museum today shows the social and political history of Berlin. It is one of the best museums I have ever visited. Once again I used the audio guide enabling me to gain so much more from the exhibits.
We walked through the rooms which were arranged in chronological order beginning around the 12th Century right up to the the 1970s. There was so much to see in each era, including Berlin’s collision with the plague, a model of Berlin in the 15th Century, and a big scale model of Berlin from the 1700s where one could see the city wall around the edge and The Man and I could just about pick out where our hotel was now standing. The rise of Prussian militarism, three internal wars, culminating in German unification. History of WW1, the post war economic collapse, and Hitler’s rise to power. WW2 and on into more recent times.
We had fun with the jukebox and I had fun in the barber’s shop — I took my research seriously, honestly!
Wednesday Afternoon – The Wall
I was ten when the Berlin Wall went up and I couldn’t get my head around it all. I remember asking my dad why they didn’t just walk around the edge. . . I think he must have thought me too young to need an explanation. From the Märkisches Museum, we crossed the river and walked the 2.5km alongside the River Spree heading to the East Side Gallery. After walking for more than a kilometre we found ourselves beside a long stretch of the original wall. I wasn’t sure if the wall was in its original position or not, because it’s hard to follow the route today not knowing whether you are, in what was East or West Berlin. Fortunately for me, I happened across a young girl in a kiosk carrying a clip board and folder. She was part of a volunteer organisation who work to preserve this section of The Wall for posterity. She explained that ‘Yes, this was the original position of the wall’. There was 1.4 kilometres of it and we were at the end. She showed me a photograph from the 1960s and pointed to a building, ‘See that building, it still stands there, and houses The Wall Museum.’
She explained that the graffiti was done on The Wall by people from all over the world immediately the wall began to be demolished in 1989. I took some photographs but they’re really not that good. Being there was the best thing.
We had walked along The Wall, on what had been the Russian Zone. Immediately on the other side of the wall it was still the East and the border for the West was on the other side of the river. And of course… a wide dead zone between The Wall and the river. It doesn’t bear thinking about. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to look out of your home and see that barrier knowing that some of your relatives were out of reach on the other side of the river.
Of course many people tried to escape and very few made it. We had seen some memorials on the fence when walking the day before. I’ve posted a photograph below.
We visited The Wall Museum afterwards and by the end I had a much greater understanding of what the German people on the East had to endure. Splitting families and holding people in a country where they don’t want to be just seems barbaric.
We watched interviews with escapees who succeeded and those who didn’t but survived. We saw photographs from the period1945/6 up to 1961 when there was a little more freedom of movement between East and West. We then saw the agony which began on August 13th 1961.
Of course there is so much political history and the subject needs much greater research and serious study to make any real comment here on my blog. I suppose what I can say, is that prior to my visit, I had only superficially thought about Germany after the war and now I have come to realise what a dreadful time the ordinary Berliner had. That child of ten had no comprehension of the division of Germany and Berlin between the Allies (France, Britain and America) and the Russians.
Below is a Slide show of the East Side Gallery
My next blog will cover Thursday, Friday and Saturday in Berlin. Potsdam Palace, Bratwurst in Savigny Platz and terrific brunch in Arminius Markt!
‘On Monday I had more or less decided I was not a novelist, by last night I had changed my mind. Didn’t expect that!’ This is a quote from ME on the last day of the course.
Before I wrote and published Dear Tosh I began writing in other genres, specifically poetry, short stories and flash fiction. Simultaneously, I drafted two novels, neither of which I actually finished. Well, that’s not strictly true, I finished one then decided it was garbage so put it in a drawer to be forgotten. The other one was unfinished and lay dormant on my computer. There was something not quite right about the premise. I signed up to the Mslexia Novel School, decided to wake up this work in progress and make one last effort at completing it.
From the 11th until the 15th July, I was one of forty odd women who signed up for the online Mslexia Novel School. Every morning for the first half-hour, all the attendees appeared on screen. Rosie Garland talked us through a warm up of writing exercises and ‘chat’. Again in the evening for the last hour, either Rosie or Bec Evans took us through a winding down session. During the rest of the day we were divided into groups of 10 or 12. It was a full on week from 9.30 until 18.00 each day. Four different tutors for workshops covering a variety of novel writing topics.
It was a brilliant week. My group bonded and encouraged each other with constructive feedback on the work that we produced throughout the week — and there was plenty of that — and ideas we all had for new novels or suggestions about our work in progress. It is truly wonderful how supportive other women writers can be. My group are still in contact via WhatsApp and plan regular Zoom meet-ups. How good is that?
Each tutor had put together interesting and informative workshops. They used examples of work from well known books and authors and crafted some clever exercises to expand our ever hungry desire for knowledge. I’ve given a quick list of the tutors and if you want to know more about them you can click on the links.
Voice and POV was run by Margaret Wilkinson a quietly spoken women who taught me not to be afraid to play around with viewpoint and voice until I hit on the one best suited to the piece of work I was writing.
Creating Character was Lesley Glaister who struggled with a sore throat but that didn’t stop her from imparting some great tips re character building including making a connection with an object and a character. I chose a bag of old soap slivers, and invented a troubled young man. Can’t share it because I’m editing it with a view to entering it somewhere.
Pace, Page Turning and Plot fell to Livi Michael. I have to thank Livi for my lightbulb moment of the week when she made me see the weakness in my plot and also turned the few sentences of my ‘pitch to an agent’ into something far more interesting and exciting.
World Building was led by the effervescent Leone Ross was both scary and incredibly enthusiastic. She made us step right out of our comfort zones, stretching our imaginations, in order to create some amazing new and quite different worlds.
I gained something from every tutor during the week and from the hosted discussions held with Rosie and Bec for the whole school on the last day. Rosie shared her journey to publication telling us about her multiple rejections before eventual acceptance. She was the winner of the first Mslexia Novel Competition. What an inspiration she was. We were all in awe. Thank you Rosie.
If you are a woman and considering joining a novel writing course next year, I can recommend Mslexia. Check out what else they have to offer here
Last Thursday, rather late to the party, I signed up to attend the Flash Fiction Festival for just one day – it was absolutely brilliant and I wished I had realised earlier that it was on. I would have attend the whole weekend, from Friday 7th July until Sunday 10th, but as you know, if you read my last post, I’m already committed to a week long online course with Mslexia Novel School starting tomorrow (11th July) and I thought I would not be able to cope with a full weekend ahead of that.
The Flash Fiction Festival was full on with some terrific workshops, readings, panel discussions and other activities (I missed out on the karaoke on Friday night but I’ll be there next year!) The house was a perfect venue with beautiful grounds in which to relax or explore. Lots of trees for shade which was needed this year.
The first workshop I did was with Kathy Hoyle from WritersHQ She ran a fast and furious session when participants had to pick a genre out of a hat — hopefully one they didn’t normally write in — two opposing prompts given: ACCIDENTALLY v ON PURPOSE. We were then given twenty minutes to write a story of up to 500 words. By the way, a ‘Flash Face Off’ is run each week on their website. Kathy Hoyle was an enthusiastic and energetic workshop leader and brought out the very best in us…I even ‘won’ a book because I stood up and read out my short piece, which was okay but will benefit from some editing and a better ending! I picked Magic and Myth from the bowl, definitely not my usual choice of genre!
After a coffee break everyone took part in a ‘Word Cricket’ session with Vannessa Gebbie. She started us off with a sentence and we began, with instruction to write quickly and continuously. Every now and then she threw us a random word and we had to immediately insert it into our writing. I had done this before and it’s great fun. It’s amazing the variety of stories that can be created in a very short time.
I absolutely loved the second workshop I attended with Carrie Etter she was a brilliant facilitator. The title of the workshop was ‘Writing the Prose Poetry Sequence or Series’. It was an hour and a half long and it flew by. I could have done a whole day without any problem. She introduced us to a couple of prose series, the first was from Nina Andrews’ The Book of Orgasms (Bloodaxe, 2003) I thought I might feel uncomfortable with this subject, but no, they are light hearted and very clever. I laughed a lot and even read one out loud when asked. Great fun. Sorry I can’t find a link to share these poems. The second example Carrie gave us was from Hilda Sheehan’s debut pamphlet, Frances and Martine (Dancing Girl, 2014). Another series of amusing prose poetry with anecdotes about two middle aged friends. You can get a glimpse here .
We were given the chance to think about and create our own series of prose poems. The idea was to create say three prose poems using one of the following prompts: The Gaze, The Kiss or The Whisper. For example if you chose the kiss you might think of writing the following poems: The Kiss at the Barrier, The Kiss of the Reptile and the Kiss of Death. Get it? The option to expand is endless.
We then went on to talk about Prose Poetry Series, which differ from the above because each poem continues from the poem that comes before it. The example we worked from was Rosmarie Waldrop’s White Is a Color (Guillemot, 2017. It’s 19 short prose poems that tell the story of the speaker’s husband’s fall and recovery. It’s very good.
I am enthused to create some of my own prose poetry series or sequence…watch this space.
During the afternoon I attended a panel on Writing Historical Novellas-in-flash. A very interesting discussion and informative. I was never quite sure what constitutes a novella-in-flash. I thought it had to be a series of flash fiction stories that stood alone but with a story arc. I learnt that each flash-fiction should not exceed 1000 words —but they sometimes do — they don’t ALL have to stand alone but usually a good percentage of them do. There doesn’t have to be a story arc but there should be some connection between them. This is what I now understand, but I’m sure others will say something different. It seemed to me that the ‘rules’ are there to be broken.
My last workshop of the day was with Michael Loveday, ‘Writing the Novella-in-flash: Developing your characters’. I have to admit to being pretty exhausted by this point and could not really focus as well as I had earlier in the day. But, it was a good workshop and Michael gave us all several handouts to take way and use at home. Thank goodness ….I’m going to use his many tips for getting deep into my fictional characters. I think the worksheets might come in handy for my novel school next week!
I’m going to leave you with this photograph… how and why do you think that little yellow duck ended up on the top of the dresser? I have no idea but my eyes kept being drawn to it during one workshop.
It is now well over twelve months since I published my memoir Dear Tosh and during that time I have not finished any other work in progress. I have two novels on the go — actually three — but none are anywhere near finished. I also began, in earnest, to write a memoir about my life in Italy but this fell by the wayside when I realised that it was probably not going to be of interest to anyone. It’s been done too many times before. I have to think of a different angle for it rather than a series of anecdotes about being an expat abroad. Quite a few poems were created or edited over the last few months but nothing good enough to put into a pamphlet, at least not yet. Also, a radio play which has been put in a drawer then pulled out and edited several times over the last ten years! I am, if you like, in a state of ‘half-dressed’ with everything I do, and I find it a lot easier to choose clothing and complete my outfit than to bring any of my WIP to a satisfactory conclusion.
In an attempt to actually finish something, I’ve signed up to the Mslexia Novel School next week. It’s an online course from Monday to Friday aimed at those of us who want to — but don’t seem to be able to — begin or finish a work of fiction. I’m a believer in courses, any courses; online, in person or a hybrid of both. On the whole I find them inspiring and I need the interaction with tutors and other writers to keep me motivated. I know that sometimes feedback can be harsh and often full of words you don’t want to read or hear but you have to learn to pick out the more objective notes and take them on board.
I have an MA in Creative Writing and I facilitate creative writing sessions on a regular basis, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to attend writing courses myself. I believe that you can ever stop learning.
I’m full of enthusiasm and can’t wait to get going. . . I’ll update you at the end of next week as to how the novel writing course went.
The English Girl In Leningrad was published at the end of April this year. The author Anna Wooster agreed to answer some questions for this blog. I think you’ll find her answers fascinating. Anna’s story is the kind of story people want to read. It’s interesting from the point of view of Russian history, and Anna’s personal account of life as a ballet student in the Eastern Block during the cold war. Read on to find out more. . .
Tell me a little about yourself and life today.
In a way my life underwent a big change with Covid 19. Not because I caught it but because it coincided with a heart problem I had which interfered with my teaching routine. Simultaneously the ballet school had to close down because of the lockdown imposed in Italy. With ballet schools closed for practically two years, my class of senior secondary school girls dispersed; mostly gone on to university. However now I still give a weekly class and theory session to my group of four teachers who run the school, teaching children from 3 to 14, in six separate groups. I help with performances, and revive some of my choreography and rehearse my teachers when they dance themselves.
Apart from the school I seem to be as busy as before but there is far less to show for it. Writing the book was very time consuming and getting it actually printed was the most stressful part of it. We have a big house and let two flats as Airbnb accommodation which takes considerable energy and organisation and then we have an enormous garden, with flowers, lawns, vegetable patch, fruit trees and twenty olive trees which supply us with delicious oil all year.
My husband is on pension but since his retirement he divides the chores with me and takes the whole responsibility for the olives and veg patch. Our large extended family is scattered all over the world with a daughter in Australia, a son in Portugal, a grandson in Australia, another in America, and yet one more in Scotland. My eldest daughter, and her eldest son fortunately live only half an hour away from us.
Did you always want to be a ballet dancer?
Yes. Like many little girls I said I wanted to be a ballet dancer even before I really knew what that meant and even less what it entailed. I needed to do something completely different from my brothers. As I grew older and luckily found an exceptionally valid ballet teacher in Mrs Nina Hubbard my wish to do specifically ballet grew and with it a particular delight in doing ‘improvisation’. This was a field where I didn’t have competition from my brothers and where academic abilities didn’t come into play. At primary school I was what they called ‘a late developer’. I was slow to read, hopeless at arithmetic, and a lousy speller. However by the time I finished secondary school I had seven GCEs including English language, literature, maths, and French. The more ballet classes I did the better my academic work became. When I went to Warsaw for the Youth Festival aged 14+ in 1955, I knew I wanted to be a ballet dancer and no-one could discourage me. This one-mindedness has been a deciding factor in my life.
Tell me briefly, for my blog readers who don’t know you or the book, how you came to be a student in Russia please. I believe your father had a great deal to do with it. By the way he sounds like a wonderful man, I should like to have met him.
Yes, my dad was a wonderful person, and without him I would never have made to Leningrad. Mrs Hubbard was Russian and taught ballet pre-Vaganova Russian style. She was the one who encouraged me to aim at studying in Leningrad. My father read an article in the Times, written by a Russian diplomat saying that peace and understanding between nations would be increased with the exchange of students of science and the arts. Answering this appeal my father asked if the desire of his daughter to study ballet in Russia certify for this possible exchange. To cut a long story short, this beginning led to me being given an audition to the Bolshoi school during the Moscow Youth Festival of 1957, which finally enabled me to go to the Vaganova Academy in November 1957.
The training you received in Russia was very different from anything in the west and when you returned to England you found you could not fit in. Tell me about this.
The attitude to ballet in the Soviet Union was totally different to the attitude in the west. In Russia ballet was a main stream art, in England then, it was considered elite entertainment. I came home full of hope, anxious to put to use the accomplishments I had achieved, only to realise bit by bit that they were not what was requested. All my friends, teachers, acquaintances, contacts , were left behind the Iron Curtain. There was no-one to guide me, advise me, encourage me. Coming straight from the Vaganova Academy, from being pampered and looked after by dedicated teachers, from working in the best possible studies and theatres, I found myself rehearsing in church halls with terrible floors, rickety barres, no mirrors with ballet masters that seemed to me to give classes that tied me up in knots. The impact of cultural shock that hit me was gradual in its undermining power to destroy self-confidence, however, slowly but surely it eroded my very will to live: I was on tour in Chester, poised on a landing leading down to the river Dee ready to get finished with it all, when a casual call from a colleague “Coming for a drink Woos?” changed the course of things.
You say in your book that you had to choose between being a ballet dancer or marrying the love of your life. Because you felt dance was a vocation and demanded your whole self. How did you find combining being a ballet teacher with being a wife and mother?
On marrying I decided that ballet would not be my one and only object in life. However three months after settling in Riva del Garda in collaboration with the local music school I opened my first ballet classes for girls.
I decided right from the beginning that the ballet school would not be another all-absorbing career. I never programmed lessons at the weekends, nor taught after 7pm in the evenings. School summer holidays, Christmas, New Year, Easter, were all dedicated to the family, and I kept one weekday free from teaching so I could do things with my kids. That said, life was a bit like a merry go round; school, kids, husband, house, garden. Sometimes one would have priority over the others, for example when the annual school performance came up at the end of May beginning of June, everything else took second place. But preparations for Christmas, making of cakes, mincemeat, puddings etc the precedence changed. My two girls and my son all did ballet with me, the eldest up to a teaching diploma, and the second daughter up to advanced standard. My son danced until he was 12, then he oped for other activities, ski-ing, sailing, tennis and football that he started when he was 8. My husband collaborated with the school in a practical manner, helping with the maintenance of the studio, lending his secretary to keep the books, driving the van with costumes to the theatre, making scenery, you name it.
Have you now completely retired from teaching?
As I said earlier I still teach my group of teachers, and conduct the odd rehearsal. The lessons offer a good opportunity for them to ask any queries they have about their pupils, or doubts on how some step should be performed. They ask me my opinion concerning their choreography, and particularly advice on making costumes. Life has changed, pupils have changed, attitudes have changed, parents have changed. I have great admiration for my teachers who face many difficulties and obstacles that didn’t exist in my day and accept they must adjust to the times in order to survive, nonetheless they do so still upholding my principles.
Have you always thought about writing this book or did it only come to you recently?
No, I had never thought of writing a book. I had a very low opinion of my literary abilities, although I enjoyed essay writing at secondary school. I felt my literacy in English stopped when I was 17 and went to Russia. There I learnt Russian and I must say quite a bit of English too while trying to understand Russian grammar, but I read very little English. Then when I married I learnt Italian, there again English took second place and it wasn’t as it is now with TV in any language you want. In Italy they have the habit of dubbing all films in Italian too. It was doing the RAD BADE degree on Dance in Education by correspondence that really revived my English. We had to read copiously and write many essays. Because many students were not mother tongue English speakers, and I was living in Italy maybe they took me for a foreigner, but all the professors I had contact with complimented me on my English! My morale was very boosted by this. The idea of the book was connected with my degree insomuch as it was Jonathan Still, professor of the Music for Ballet course who encouraged me to write down my recollections. I sent him a photo of me in my Russian costume, the one on the cover of the book, and a description of the costume and how I made it and the adventure of getting the materials sent from England. He was most enthusiastic so I took another photo of me in the Arabian dance from Nutcracker and wrote about how I was chosen to dance this, and the rehearsals, the costume, and finally the encouragement from Nureyev who was the Nutcracker Prince at my first performance. I showed these efforts to my granddaughter too and she was fascinated and said straight away, “ Grandma, you must write a book about it all!”
You must have mountains of notes written over the years or did you just rely on your memory?
I haven’t written notes but I did write letters home to my parents when I was there and my father kept them all and put them is order by date and scholastic year. Those are the backbone of the book. Then I am afflicted by the squirrel syndrome, I never throw away programmes, photos, letters, press cuttings nor even postcards. However there is much in the book that comes from my memory, many of the sensations, anguish, joy, trepidation, wonder are there in my mind’s eye and add flesh to the facts from the letters.
How long did it take you to write the book?
The first write up, the one about the costume I did in 2016. The others followed at irregular intervals. During Covid lockdown I put it all on the app. Scrivener with the assistance of Jonathan Still. Then it really began to take shape. It was more or less finished by the middle of 2021.
How did you find self-publishing?
That was the worst part of all. I am not computer-minded. I am more or less self-taught or maybe it would be better to say, grandchildren- reliant ! Following advice from friends, I had the book professionally edited, and then sent it to a typesetter who prepared the files for KDP as that was the only way of publishing I could afford. There were hitches, and I am not 100% satisfied with the result, but it’s out, there to be read.
That’s the important thing. So much better than leaving it on your computer. What a waste that would be.
I remember you had originally wanted to print over 100 photographs but found that wasn’t viable. It looks like you ended up with around 30. How did you choose which ones to remove? How did you choose those?
Actually there are twenty-one photos with the frontispiece. First of all I was strongly advised by my editor to remove any photos which I didn’t have copyright for, which unfortunately were photos taken by professionals and were some of the best. I took out photos of buildings, and inanimate objects. Then I allowed myself only one photo of each role I danced, and one photo of the most important people in the story. I choose the photos where I think I look okay!
Ha… I don’t blame you!Do you ever go back to Russia now? To Leningrad or St Petersburg as it is now? Do you still have friends there?
Yes, I went back to St Petersburg last time in 2005, and went back to school and looked up those friends who were still alive and still there. Many, many people, teachers, classmates, friends, have died and many others have gone abroad. I saw my character dance teacher and the French language mistress. The group photo of our graduation year 1961 is hanging on the wall on the staircase. I saw a couple of friends and visited them at home. They now work either as teachers at school or in the theatre but life has altered tremendously.
I have been to Moscow much more recently in 2019/20 to visit my son and his Russian wife and son who live there.
Have all your family read the book and what did they think of it? You must have grandchildren old enough to read it now?
Yes, indeed. My granddaughter was my first reader, she has followed all the stages and has been a continuous stimulus to write the book. She was also an excellent critic, pointing out where I should delve deeper, explain more fully, or had been ambiguous. My second daughter too read it while it was in the making and contributed with many useful suggestions but above all designed the cover. She herself is a very eclectic artist, making use of an infinite variety of materials. It was her idea to use the Union Jack and the Hammer and Sickle as a background. My eldest daughter made a significant comment, she said “I was astounded how four years in Leningrad, formed your character, made you what you are, influenced your whole life!”
That’s very interesting. Often children don’t get the opportunity to read about their parents’ past.
My eldest brother and his wife who is Russian but comes from Moldava read the book in the making. My brother corrected my English and some family details and said chapter 4 was only for people interested in ballet! His wife on the other hand was enthusiastic about it and said it painted a vivid picture of a historic period. My husband read various parts along the way but feels he knows the story anyway. He too, finds there are too many ballet technicalities for a lay person.
I have had delightful messages from other members of the family, a cousin, father of three girls aged 12, 10, 7, read the book to them and they were fascinated and asked me all sorts of questions.
The cover shows such a lovely photograph of you, in a fantastic headdress. I believe your father had something to do with it?
Yes, my dad made the ‘skeleton’ of the kokoshnik, the traditional Russian headdress, from stiff wire recuperated from the stems of a bunch of artificial roses It was very difficult to find any materials like wire; there were no hardware shops or DIY stores. The roses were given to us by the theatre, they came from the opera Carmen! He made it in such a way that it was very sturdy and didn’t wobble at all. Then I covered it with lining and then lamé and we sewed on the ‘jewels’ and made the net of seed pearls which cover the forehead.
Did any of your children want to become ballet dancers?
Fortunately, no! None of them had all the qualities/gifts necessary for a career in ballet, and although they all had good points and gained joy and satisfaction studying ballet they developed other passions. My parents were very good about letting me do what I wanted to do, going against advice from school teachers and the like, and I was adamant that my children would make their own decisions too. They did, and all chose arts rather than sciences.
I love the story about selling all your clothing before you left and everyone wanting to buy items even if they were worn out. You bought a liqueur set as a memento. Do you still have it?
Yes, indeed! I treasure it together with the gifts that Olga Genrikhovna gave me.
I understand you are at the moment translating the book into Italian, how is that going?
It is going reasonably well. I did a rough translation with the Deep L. App. And am now reading through it to correct the most blatant mistakes, (like translating ‘the rake of the stage’, as though it was a gardening rake!) But when I have done that it will need to be edited by an Italian, then typeset for KDP, which I am wondering if I can manage myself this time…. Ah! Still a lot of work to do on that, but very necessary because all my pupils are Italians and although the younger generation is much more proficient in English than former ones, none of my teachers for instance have read the book and I do want them to read it!
Can we also expect it to be translated into Russian?
Maybe. My Russian sister in law has offered to help me if I decide to translate it into Russian. It would be a very good exercise for my Russian which has become very rusty, particularly the reading and writing of it. I don’t know who would be interested in reading it in Russia now, everything has changed so much….
Do you think this is the only book you have in you? Or can we expect another perhaps more about life as a dance teacher in Italy?
Good question! There has been considerable pressure put on me by my ex pupils here in Riva, to write up the fifty year’s story of the ballet school. I have stored and kept much information about the school and its transformations over the years and have loads of photos and videos. (From the 80s on) and my memory is not too bad so it’s not impossible that I’ll write it all up sometime…
I’ll be watching out for that one!
Thank you Anna for answering my questions and congratulations on producing such a wonderful book.
Once I began reading it I could not stop and I recommend that all my followers download the e-book or order a copy of the paperback so that they can judge for themselves. Anna’s website can be found HERE Link to buy the book HERE
This time last year I was excited for the launch of Dear Tosh at 19.30 UK time. We, Carla Jenkins and I, had rehearsed how we wanted the launch to go and it was worth putting in the effort. Apart from a couple of minor problems (technical) it all went very smoothly. You can catch it here if you didn’t attend or just fancy another look.
To celebrate the one year anniversary of the book I gave away a signed copy to a lovely person who I met only this week in the beautiful village of Cailhau in France where The Man and I are staying for a few days. We go back to Provence on Monday and then back to England on the 10th June.
The book was well received and I’m happy to say that there are copies of Dear Tosh all over the world. The reviews have been amazing and I’m thrilled to think that the book has brought a little something into the lives of so many. If you haven’t yet got a copy you can order it from any independent book shop or from Waterstones HERE or Amazon HERE (audio version and ebook available from Amazon as well as the paperback).