Many years ago, as part of my training to be a flour miller, I was seconded to a mill in Glasgow for six months or so. This modern plant also operated a pair of millstones to satisfy a small demand for stone ground wholemeal. I don’t believe the millstones contributed anything to the economic viability of the mill but their presence did give me an opportunity to step back in time and see at first hand how all flour was once milled. I wrote about it:
The millstones were housed in a section of the mill just off the screenroom. They produced stone ground wholemeal. The French burrstones, incredibly hard, were five feet in diameter and about a foot or so thick and they rumbled as they rotated one upon the other - the bottom stone, the bed stone, fixed and the top stone, the runner stone, in motion. The wheat was fed into a hole in the centre of the runner stone from where it travelled outwards to the skirt, being ground as it went. The meal was warm to the touch as it left the stones and slithered down a wooden spout into a jute bag strapped to a packing ring on the floor below. Flour dust leaked from every part of the process, rising like smoke through the shafts of sunlight from the windows and coating every surface.
Each stone had a pattern cut into its grinding face; flat areas to do the work and furrows into which the ground meal would fall and make its way to the outer rim. Every few months these patterns would have to be re-cut, a process known as “dressing” and I was taught how to do this by Archie, keeper of the stones. I painted red ochre onto the underside of the staff, a long wooden straight edge, and rubbed this across the stone’s surface. The red ochre discoloured the high spots so I could set-to with a special adze called a pick, about the size of a mountain climber’s axe. I tapped away at the high points for hour after hour until my arms and hands ached. Eventually the entire surface was even. It was a tedious task for sure but strangely addictive and satisfying.
When the stones were in action I helped Archie bag off the product, scale it, and sew up the jute sacks with needle and twine. When you weigh 160 pounds soaking wet, manhandling 280 pound sacks of meal takes some doing but I’d got the knack of it and could swing the full sack off the spout onto the platform scale using my thigh, check the weight, sew it up, swing it onto the hand barrow and trundle it off to the warehouse.
Scooby-Doo. We named him that because of his shape and markings. Huge head. Orange and black stripes, with dustings of white. The little Spanish kids call him Tigre.
Taken in by neighbours after being found starving and brutalised on the mountainside, he was looked after for months but they couldn't keep him. When we arrived, we took him on. Such a sweet boy, so placid, so grateful. Cuddled and kissed and hugged and patted half to death. But he endures it.
So imagine when we take him to the Spanish vet. A white furred bear of a man. Not wishing to get a monumental fine, we have to get him a rabies jab, a chip and a shiny new, blue passport. Oh, and then we have to take some blood to check for all the ghastly diseases he can get here.
Our other rescue dog, Jess doesn't even register anything is happening. But not Scooby. As the vet reaches between his legs and exclaims that 'he has no balls', Scooby loses the plot. Well, no wonder, since some b*****d has hand cut off his balls and his ears. No anesthetic and definitely no symmetry.
'Bring him back on Friday', says the vet, 'and I'll have a muzzle ready.'
So, Friday comes and I have twisted knots in my stomach. We place Scooby on the table and I get the muzzle on him. Now Scooby has paws the size of my hands. His front carriage is twice the size of his end. My better half says he has a Rod Stewart bum, especially as he has his own tiger patterned pants.
Somewhere after the jab and in between the chip, poor Scoobs uses his giant paws to wrench the muzzle of. Then we watch in horror as our sweet natured boy morphs into a real tiger on that marble topped counter. Never seen the like and I gather, neither has the vet. The snarls are from some subterranean beast, the teeth are flashing and we can't hold onto his head, as he's too strong.
In amidst this, my better half chucks him a snack, which he eats while still snarling.
The vet rolls his eyes.
I get the muzzle back on him without losing any fingers and then we have to hang onto this frenzied, thrashing animal while the vet finishes his business.
I'm slick with sweat and shaking. 'I think we need a beer.'
'Or two,' says the vet.
There's blood everywhere. I drag him off the table and try to calm him down. Now I only have to get the muzzle off him. Maybe being outside helps, but once I've thrown the muzzle from us, he stops trembling and nestles against me.
Back in the vets, I say, 'Can we pay you more for all the stress?'
'No,' he says, 'but next time you see me in the street, invite me for a beer.'
'Or two,' I say.
Moral of the tale. Don't stick your hands between anyone's legs without asking first!
We don’t often see poetry on the Word Cloud but there have been one or two pieces appearing recently, so I thought I would share (with some minor revisions) something from my own blog on the subject.
I love poetry. But to paraphrase Memphis Slim, if I could write it as well I love it, boy I would be a champ. You can hear the original quote here. It’s worth a listen. Scratchy as anything but you can still appreciate the artistry. Of course, Memphis Slim is a champ, and he shows it in this tribute as he calls out the names of his heroes and demonstrates their styles.
Anyway, I’m not a poetry champ. Not even close. I can’t even pretend to understand it any more than I can describe the theory behind the magic Memphis Slim is creating in that clip. I remember being thrilled by poetry when I was younger. And writing it, in an okay freeform sort of a way. I was never introduced to the technical forms of verse when I was at school and they came as a bit of a shock when I discovered them as an adult. How could something so raw and emotional be produced according to such rigid requirements? Of course, it can be, and it is. With varying degrees of success. This is the issue that poetry has, I think. I can pick up a poetry anthology and read it through – more usually I flick about randomly – and not find a single poem that moves me. I can hear or read a poem someone I know loves and raves about, and not be moved. I’m sure it’s the same for most other people. Why wouldn’t it be? But then I find a poem with a rhythm and a power that really moves me it makes me want to share it and read it out aloud to everyone I know.
Well here’s the thing. I love music too. But unlike my love of poetry, with music, I’m confident of finding thousands of like-minded people to share music with. Even the most obscure stuff I like (and there is a lot of that) has an immediacy that will pull people in. Music taps into our subconscious. We feel it, on a level we have to work to achieve with the written word. But just like music, when it comes to poetry, you will know what you like when you find it. The problem is that the next move, the next poet, isn’t so well signposted from the first. Still, I persevere, and still, I know next to nothing and understand even less. But I know what I like when I find it and I keep looking. My bookshelves are filling with poetry: collected works, anthologies themed by subject, era, form.
I have even been sufficiently emboldened to make recommendations to others, suggesting poems or poets I think are deserving of attention. In a series of tweets, I have been highlighting great lines from some of my favourite poems and poets in the hope that they might pique someone’s interest enough to Google them and discover something new. So here are some of them. I don’t generally include the title or poet – that’s not the point.
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
You could get them still by writing a few cheques
What kind of animal is man...,
To have reached
the ultimate top
of the stalk single,
to hang like a bell,
through sheer weight
Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish
There'd be no kissing if he had his wish
The feelings I don't have, I don't have
The feelings I don't have, I won't say I have
You ain't nothing but a hedgehog
Foragin' all the time
Wretched woman that thou art
How thou piercest to my heart
With thy misery and graft
And thy lack of household craft
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill, April
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers
I’m a sucker for lyricism, so Dylan Thomas, Edna St Vincent Millay. Off the wall: Stevie Smith. Imagist poets: DH Lawrence, HD, Amy Lowell. Modern poets: Vicki Feaver, Ian McMillan, Roger McGough.
But if you buy no other poetry book then this is the one to get. Because if you can’t find something in Fiona Owen’s verse to appreciate, you can at least cross poetry off your list for good. Fiona was my tutor when I studied with the Open University and is responsible for "bringing me back to poetry", getting me writing again after a very long lay-off.
April Competition: Setting The Scene.
If you're a regular in the monthly competitions, you may have popped in and seen the theme for April's competition. If not, what are you waiting for? My aim was to pass on some of the advice I received from agents at AM Heath.
The idea is that the setting for a story can often play such a big part in the story that it's practically a character. Think Hogwarts, Discworld, Dickens' London or even the Baltimore Asylum where Hannibal Lecter was held. I wanted to give a little help to those who are new to the competitions by offering a lesser known example of where it is done to great effect.
Make sure you press the look inside sign on the book.
This is a link to the first two chapters of a crime novel called Hope To Die, by David Jackson. I recently received a signed copy of this at his book launch and tucked straight in. It did exactly what I wanted to get across in the competition. Take a look if you like. However, the purpose of this blog is to find out your feeling on setting the scene. Whilst I personally don't mind a little description, I do like the story to move on. I would like to know of examples where you have come across a setting that absolutely brings a story to life and makes it shine.
Maybe together we can help inspire some thoughtful insight into the importance of a good setting and then if you feel brave enough you can have a crack at the competition. Everybody is welcome, nobody should feel pressurised. They are a useful way to improve your writing and interact with other cloudies.
I welcome one and all to join the discussion.
At our recent writing group meeting, we had a Spring theme; so sharing the link to the blog if you want to see the prompts we used.
Click HERE for the prompts and part of a collaborative sonnet which we had to write as a group cos none of us had ever tried writing one before!
Enjoy the gorgeous spring weather, by the way - I'm so glad schools have finally broken up here (for a change, we're a week later than most folk, but hopefully that means we get a week after Easter when everyone else goes back!) and we can get out and about in the sunshine.
Have you ever had one of those experiences where you somehow volunteered for something but have no recolection of actually doing it?
Mine was a Christmas party. A dear friend, who always hosts the parties, said the Christmas one would be at hers. Now, that's all well and good if you live in a nice terraced house, two-up two-down, on a pavemented and tarmacked road in Blighty. But no.
Her place is thirteen kilometres up a steeply winding mountain road, then left at the Hermita, where you throw out a quick prayer if you know what's coming next, down a terrifying rock strewn dirt track for another kilometre, where every hair-pin bend threatens to tip you rolling down into a ravine at least a hundred feet below. Then there's the issue of parking, where there's no parking. Nose to tail winding back up the track is not a good idea. Followed rapidly with the baying of the Andaluz mountain dog that stands shoulder to shoulder with you. I mean, old Bonzo is big. Really, really big. With great big teeth. Now mind, you haven't even made it through the kitchen door yet.
So I think I said, well, perhaps it could be at ours...
And that, of course, was that.
We've only just moved to the mountains of Andalucia, still finding our feet, getting used to the incongruencies of the area. Rather panicked, I'd scrubbed the place free of Andalucian dust, swept the myriad crispy leaves back out the doors, put a note on the toilet that under no circumstances was any loo roll to be thrown in the toilet (as it only leads to a pipe and a big pit outside where all the s**t drains away, we hope) and had started to prep the vegetarian food that my friends only eat (can you imagine in southern Spain!).
Sweat had dripped, nails were filthy, hair in stringy ringlets. You get the picture...switching on the tap...
OH GOOD GOD! No water. Quick look on the Orgiva Massive website. No one has water. I'm not sure if that makes me feel better or worse. I have eighteen people coming for a Christmas party tomorrow and there's no water. Yay.
'Cancel!' The better half is not taking this well. 'Cancel now.'
'I can't. It's too late' I might be wailing.
'Right. Then we use the water from the irrigation tank and we ask a friend who has water to bring some down to us.' He's a top man in a crisis.
Next day, the recycling bowl is filled with pool water for washing up, a bucket is by the loo and cars are making deep grooves in the front part of our garden as now it's raining. Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.
I happily observe that my guests look a little greasy round the edges too. Good. They've all been here for years and take it in their stride but I sincerely hope I don't poison anyone by using water that has goodness only knows what in it. I do a lot of wiping up.
One guest has gate-crashed. She's seventy-four and as tough as you can get. 'I can piddle in the garden, darling.'
'You don't have to. We have a toilet.'
'I know, but I love piddling outside. So liberating, don't you think?'
Do you know what? Friends are friends for a reason. What a fantastic party we had. Food and drink was shared, while some wore Santa hats with jingly bells, others sang carols and played on an accordian and a ukulele. We all had fizzy-popping conversations and laughed like drains. The photos are great.
And the best bit. No one died.
We were without water for three days and when it sputtered back on, it made you appreciate it that much more.
It appears that in my recent competition cages have been rattled. Good. I make no apologies for that. As writers’ we focus on writing in an original style, as opposed to imitating pre-existing genres. That’s our aim for a good reason. Many times on the cloud (since the golden opportunity for self-publication) there has been mention of an explosion of badly written novels flooding the market. Why is that? One main reason is that authors’ not able to attract the services of an agent have put two fingers up to the traditional route in order to satisfy their ego. Now, before cages start rattling again, I’m not saying that writers’ on the cloud are bad writers’ or that they self-publish for egotistical reasons. In the several years and more I’ve been a member of the cloud (mainly for grown-ups) I have tried to do the following:
· Learn how to write fiction.
· Improve on what I’ve learnt.
· Encourage others to succeed.
· Join in the conversation with members.
· Enter competitions.
· Be entertained.
· Seek eventual publication.
In fact, I would imagine the majority of stalwarts on the cloud wish to aspire to new heights. To get to the nitty gritty, there are hundreds of members on the cloud, I grant you some don’t stay, others have part made it, very few out of the hundreds I would argue secured deals from the big publishers. This tells me one thing, to be successful you require an agent. To be successful, you need to heed your chosen market. To be successful, you need to take it on the chin now and again. To be successful cages have to be rattled. To be successful, an established readership is key. To be successful the route to your audience is an agent. Aspire to that.
Good luck in your endeavour and Happy Writing! ;-)
These days I am aware that I am feeling something deep, something big, something that could well be life-shattering - but I can't quite see it. It weighs on me, it tears at me, it screams wordless terror in my head, but still the feeling remains defiantly indescribable, hovering just beyond my verbal reach.
And there is not a piece of music that I know of, no song, no lyric, no poetry, not even a novel, wide and rambling, that says what I think I feel. How can that be?
When others say that words fail them, I usually think: well, they wouldn't fail me, at least not if I thought about it long enough. There are always words, aren't there, for those who know how to use them? And if there aren't, if it can't be explained in verbose prose, or encapsulated in the peculiarly distilled language of the poem, then there is always music.
That's what music is for, isn't it? For those times when words, even carefully thought-out words, even expertly chosen, meaning-rich words, even those words that drop onto the page as if from the heavens, a gift, a sudden, surprising inspiration - when even those words fail, then there is music. Isn't there? Music to stir the soul, or to quiet it; music to speak to the world of the soul's deep longings.
So why can't I find a piece of music anywhere that speaks what I need to be spoken? That touches the reality of what I'm feeling and carries it, expresses it, to others?
And if I can't, if no words or even music will describe the feeling, is it real? Can I really be feeling it, if it can't be expressed or conveyed by any means?
Perhaps this is the litmus test for all feelings. If no words or music can express them, then they cannot be, after all, what we are truly feeling; we are deceived, hoodwinked into believing that we feel certain things, and are obliged therefore to act upon them, when in truth these are not what we really feel (as our total inability to find expression for them bears out) and we are instead confused, muddled, befuddled, and would conclude otherwise if we were only given enough time.
Or is it the case that some feelings go so deep, are so particular, that nothing exists (yet) in the canon of human expression to describe them? After all, why in the first place were symphonies composed, poems written, canvases covered or lumps of stone sculpted, if there already existed a means of expressing that which the artist strove to express? Surely the reason for all art is to express what cannot be expressed, satisfactorily, in full truth and with integrity, in any other way?
And so, when we find ourselves with feelings that find no echo in the vast array of human composition down the ages, rather than mistrust those feelings and disbelieve them, we may instead be led to a composition of our own, one that will encapsulate, somehow, pin down and define what we are feeling, for oursleves first of all, and then for others later. And that is how art is born.
So I must find a way. And it will be a poem, I suppose, since that is what I do. (A painting - done by me - to try to express all this confusion and fear, the longing and the dread of the longing, the hoping and the deep mistrust of the hoping, would indeed be a fearsome thing to behold! A poem is safer.)
So I am tasked with catching this feeling, for which I believe I have no words, and nailing it down onto paper with just a few arrow-sharp words, selected with care, aimed with precision, fired with wild hope and a bright, unjustified faith.
Once it is written, if it is written, it may well be that others will read it and recognise the feeling; but before that, before any of that, once it is written there will be words for a feeling that up until that point had no words, and could rage with overwhelming power because of its wordlessness. As the poem's first reader I will read it, and so I will know what it is that I feel.
So it remains for me to try to write a poem: possible or not possible, its creation or its continued non-existence will prove or disprove the feelings that I feel, will validate them or repudiate them.
Or, at the very least, the attempt will open my eyes and let me see.