Millie was a warm, talented and generous member of our group who, in collaboration with Jan Crombie, went on to publish ‘Stories from the Fruit Bowl,’ a copy of which resides in the Poetry Archive; they were just concluding another publication together. I am sure you will join me in sending condolences to all Millie’s family and friends.
I have recently been told of the death of Millie Comerford, a member of the 2013 SCVA group..
Millie was a warm, talented and generous member of our group who, in collaboration with Jan Crombie, went on to publish ‘Stories from the Fruit Bowl,’ a copy of which resides in the Poetry Archive; they were just concluding another publication together. I am sure you will join me in sending condolences to all Millie’s family and friends.
Flash Fiction workshop: Groundwork Gallery, Kings Lynn. www.groundworkgallery.com inspired by the exhibition Fragile Nature.
Tel: 01553 340714 best to call Tues-Saturday between 10-4pm firstname.lastname@example.org
Flash or micro fiction is an exercise in concision, it teaches disciplined editing, presents challenges but also opportunities to get your writing noticed, particularly with publication and competitions.
I always like time of the year, partly because the teacher in me is hard-wired to the academic year and to me this is the new year; more so than January. So I am dusting off projects to re-launch and also excited by new possibilities; I’ve been working on my short stories and I almost have a collection.
Summer is particularly lovely here in North Norfolk, it is busy; lots of visitors and people dropping by for al fresco dining in the meadow and the occasional hot afternoon nodding off in the hammock.This summer I have been focusing on preparing the meadow and its vernacular architecture for a new venture, location shoots. Aimed at magazines, stylists, fashion and homeware shops, study groups, painters, writers and photography clubs – anything or anyone who would like to book it for it inspirational rural aesthetic including and, if required, the studio and cottage. The shed is now painted ash white and the roof topped off with cedar shingles, the summer house has a wrinkly tin roof and is almost completed. There is a rustic fire bowl with a tripod for hanging kettles and pots and of course there is bunting – gypsy boho meets village fete!
In the cottage, as the proud owner of central heating and two wood burners, I can guarantee warmth. No more fingerless gloves for me, I can tap away at the keyboard without the encumbrance of wearing multiple layers of what would normally be considered outdoor attire. The photos will appear over the coming month on www.meadowcottagenorfolk.com here is a taster.
Fragile Nature at the Groundwork Gallery, Kings Lynn, is the inspiration for a masterclass in flash fiction.
Please bring writing materials and your lunch. Tea and coffee provided.
Booking is essential.
Fees £50.00 Students and under 25s: £25.00
Booking: 01553.340714 email@example.com
Flash fiction, micro–fiction and mini sagas are all terms for the shortest of short stories. Within a limited number of words; 100, 150, 300 and 500 sometimes up to a 1,000 (although personally I call that a pretty standard, if low, word count for a short story) the writer must complete a story, not a poem, but a complete short fiction.
They have become very popular, partly because they are an easy to assemble collection for the self–publisher and a good way to get your work out in the public arena, also a quick read for any competition judge. They don’t take a daunting amount of time and have the added bonus of training the writer to be concise.
They are a form where the title does a lot of work. I have seen this described as the title doing the ‘heavy lifting.’ There are also plenty of competitions and e–zines to submit to. Below is a short fiction I wrote inspired by Cornelia Parker’s Thirty Pieces of Silver. Parker collected old silver plate and then ran a steamroller over them. Squished flat they became coin–like discs magically suspended from the ceiling and grouped as coins, this title is doing some heavy lifting in referencing Judas.
Like ill–fitting ball–gowns they lurk, the silver salvers and carriage clocks of commemoration.
Uncle Henry’s rose bowls, a relic of his ill–made match, have come to me.
It takes twenty–five roses to fill them and no one has ever sent me twenty-five roses. I haven’t waited to get divorced to dispose of them; they were car–booted on a damp Saturday. Snapped up by a buyer with his fiver and silver polish, no doubt, within weeks they will retire to the back of a cupboard to tarnish.
Family heirlooms, christening mugs and presentations, have no hiding place, minimalist décor having superseded showing off with fine candelabras and tea services. Crushed under the weight of inherited relics, self–service, is the new silver service. We carry so little of our past forward, steamrollering through life, making our presence felt with landfill.
Occasion Wear pub: Ink, Sweat and Tears ©Patricia Mullin 2005
Everyone understands that novels require planning; they take a long time to research. The author works on setting and characterisation, decides on their theme, genre and structure. Works on points of tension, climax and denouement, they may write a synopsis and perhaps a structured chapter by chapter plan.
So what of the short story? Surely there’s no need, after all it’s only a few thousand words or less, you just plunge in don’t you? Well, no; for me that would be like setting off without an address, map or compass. I have left Satnav out of this analogy because it would take me on the journey; whereas I aim to navigate.
When I begin a short story I write a plan, it’s generally a page of single spaced writing and it acts as my guide to the written journey I intend to embark on. I begin by writing the title and a short paragraph which outlines the inspiration and early facts of the piece. It reads a little bit like a pitch as in: describe your story in a paragraph. Next, I describe the central theme, then the characters and the setting; I also consider tone and voice.
While the story has been incubating I will have been alert and making notes these are then added to the page, they may be factual or lead to further research. Finally, I ask myself if this story has a universal theme that people will relate to; something bigger than the story itself. As the story is written it diverts from these notes in unexpected ways, the plan is a template and is not cast in stone. Notes and additions will appear around the margins of the plan. The short story when finally realised will have changed and developed, which is a big part of the magic of writing, later it will be edited and revised over several drafts.
I feel privileged to have been invited to work with the Groundwork Gallery, leading a creative writing workshop inspired by the exhibition Water Rising.
Water Rising: making art in storm or calm.
‘The Groundwork Gallery sits directly on a river, the Purfleet, which is a tributary of the Great Ouse which we can see from our windows. We are in a flood plain and water is both our benevolent neighbour, having for centuries brought the trade and commerce which is the source of the Town’s wealth, and its greatest threat...’ Veronica Sekules.
A Journey Through Water, exploring poetic geography. Monday 20th May 2019
A creative writing masterclass with Patricia Mullin.
Ideal for developing creative skills in your writing with the potential to work verbally - literally - laterally - visually.
Bring lunch and your preferred notebook/sketchbook and pens, but tea, coffee and materials are provided.
Introductory price offer: £45.00
Students and under 25s: £25.00
Early booking is strongly advised.
17 Purfleet Street,
King's Lynn, England, PE30 1ER,
Phone 01553 340714
Zeitgeist – the spirit of the time. Some novels are perennial and treasured, touching something within all of us so that we read them time and again The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird. As history has an unnerving way of repeating itself, the distant past can suddenly have relevance.
My brother retired MP, author and diarist, Chris Mullin, had eventual success with A Very British Coup published in 1982. I’m looking now at the inside of the flyleaf now and I quote, ‘...And who poses the greatest threat to democracy? Is it the Trotskyists and Marxists who are alleged to have infiltrated the Labour Party? Or is it the real threat to the democracy to be found in the secret recesses of Whitehall bureaucracy; in the drawing rooms of the newspaper owner, and in the Oval office of the White House?’ Add ‘social media’ to ‘newspaper owner’ and add ‘Russia’ to ‘Whitehall’ and there you have it... contemporary relevance.
His novel didn’t have a particularly promising start in life, the print runs were short, the publishers, and there were several, tardy and Chris had to do a lot of footwork to get it noticed at all. However, it went on to become a highly successful TV series which garnered awards (an Emmy) and acclaim. The phrase ‘A Very British Coup’ turns up all the time in the press and on television; it is a book title that has become part of the lexicon of political comment in this country. Interest has been renewed since the election to the Labour party leadership of Jeremy Corbin and a sequel The Friends of Harry Perkins is due out shortly. This is remarkable; not least as I recall the author Rose Tremain commenting that the life of a novel is far shorter these days.
On February 25th 2019 I find that my novel Gene Genie is relevant again. I’m driving, Woman’s Hour is on the radio and the playwright Maud Dromgoole and Dr Yuliya Hilevych are being interviewed about her play ‘Mary’s Babies’ opening at the Germain Street Theatre in London. In the nineteen thirties Mary Barton and her husband Bertold Weisner started a fertility clinic, at first Mary used the brother of the infertile as donors literally keeping it in the family! It often resulted in family breakdown; soon her husband Bertold was the donor.
In 1999 I found a paragraph in a newspaper, pressure from the parents of donor children was building to allow the ‘social’ father’s name to appear on the child’s birth certificate. This interested me on two counts: firstly, in a legal document falsification of a birth certificate was punishable by a long prison term; and secondly it had never occurred to me that parents would not tell their children about the circumstances of their conception. Especially at a time when adoption files were being opened up as society recognised the damage that secrecy and identity issues caused. Gene Genie had a troubled birth the legendary agent at Curtis Brown who took me left, e-books had yet to arrive, in the end I went with a fledgling press with no publicity budget. Despite this it sold reasonably well and it still produces modest royalties. It did not though fulfil its early promise, no TV series, no best seller lists. I now think if Davina and Long Lost Family had been broadcasting it would have taken off. Gene Genie was simply ahead of its time. When the rights reverted to me, I was able to publish on Kindle and the good thing about e-books is they’re always out there and when you write another novel that does become a best seller then you will likely find a readership for the one that didn’t take off.
Luck definitely plays a part in publishing success, but then so does dogged determination and fortunately I have that in spades; it’s in my genes.
Follow this link for more information on Chris http://www.chrismullinexmp.com/
The Friends of Harry Perkins is out on 28th March and can be pre-ordered by following this link
Follow this link to download your copy of Gene Genie
I have watched Marie Kondo on Netflix and then graduated to ‘Consumed’ in which a rather bossy American with luscious shiny hair briskly tackles families affected by hoarding. One woman with a lifetime Tupperware obsession left no space in her young child to play and yet remained determined to cling on to her hoard.
I clutter clear as a side–career and I love it, people freed from the weight of their stuff are lighter happier and open to enjoying new experiences. I’ve been doing this for years and I have noticed that loss and unexpressed grief can kick start hoarding. Hoarders often suffer under the misconception that what they actually require is more storage or a bigger house they also, in my experience, struggle with decision making.
My own tactics for keeping my life clear of clutter involves routine — the turn of the seasons generally heralds a clear out. At the end of summer I launder my clothes and pack them away, this gives me the opportunity to check what no longer fits, what is simply too dated (relegated to gardening/decorating clothes) and what can go to charity shops. I don’t have a lot of clothes anyway because I don’t buy a lot. I’m an author and contrary to popular belief, J. k. Rowling we are not; wealthy authors are as rare as hen’s teeth.
I downsized to a cottage where my kitchen is tiny; it makes the Little Paris Kitchen look generous, so labour saving appliances have to earn their place. Kitchens are mega hoarding venues where sandwich toasters, fondue sets and all manner of gadgets to whip, grind or pulp lurk. I once went to one of those demonstration events in a friend’s house where you feel obliged to purchase something, I turned down the pizza stone (pricey) in favour of a cheese grating gadget with several differing barrels for grating that required you to break the cheese into small bits to feed into its mechanism then turn a handle, it was quite a fiddle to put together. When I got it home and set it down next to my sensible square cheese grater I saw how ridiculous it was. It got some use as an ice–breaker at the beginning of my creative writing classes; I got participants to see if they could put it together in record time, which caused much hilarity.
It’s not just about getting rid of stuff. It’s about consumption versus calm. If you hoard you consume in a way that begs the question what is it that you truly need in your life? Because it probably isn’t 200 hundred figurines or condiment sets. And just because you can’t help buying a lot of objects in the same category doesn’t make you a collector.
I only ever dallied with modernist minimalism, because I do love objects of beauty (see my copious Pinterest boards) although I am less enamoured with shopping. I find shopping stressful and depressing, this might of course be because I’m not J.K. Rowling, but actually shopping doesn’t bring me joy and I absolutely loathe trying on clothes in changing rooms, I’m better at home-wares. Apologies to the high street, but I often find shops nerve–jangling, bright and noisy places where I suffer from sensory overload. My bright place is the summer house in the meadow, it’s full of colour and some endearing Gypsy/boho trinkets. Whereas Meadow Cottage is designed to be visually restful and calm.
Using a natural/neutral colour palette I create vignettes, simple arrangements with paintings and objects. One of the things my inner stylist craves are areas where it appears that someone has just got up and stepped out of the room. I treat my home as I might a story composing a visual narrative within it to create areas of calm; in a frantic, overstimulating world I find it soothing and I feel sure it helps me create and write. If you want to improve the look of an area in your home and create a calming space take things away, it really is that simple.
For at least two years my life has been dominated by building the Artist's Studio as an Airbnb holiday let www.meadowcottagenorfolk.com Currently I have builders in the cottage, tanking my walls against appalling damp and finally, after five years of nothing but a wood burner, I have central heating. It is a revelation! I've spent a great deal of my life frozen cold, but the worst of it began in the rental property (known as Cold Comfort Farm) that preceded my buying Meadow Cottage. I'm not foolish enough to purchase a cottage in freezing North Norfolk (arctic winds and subzero temperatures) without heating, but the heating that was here was electric, it failed to make the radiators anything but tepid and the first quarters bill was £1300 so I reached for the off switch. Creative productivity plummets when one is frozen stiff, so now I am excitedly looking forward to getting back to my warm insulated office and cosying up to my keyboard with a number of new story ideas. I am also about to simplify my work and focus on two key elements. Income and literary output. As an individual with many ideas for schemes that interest me I have a tendency to become dissipated and with so many balls to juggle I lose focus. I am now rationalising my office and making sure that what it contains are things I need and those things that bring me joy. My new streamlined creative space is going to reflect my desire to focus on my writing, my teaching and my business.
Preparations were well advanced. It was only October but the candied peel, plump sultanas, currants and raisins had been bought and stored in the pantry for weeks. The baking of the Christmas cake required military planning. The overnight soaking of the fruit in brandy and spices, left a sensuous and giddy aroma in the house. The biggest mixing bowl was unearthed from the back of the cupboard – there was a certain anxiety amid the excitement. The mixture was impossibly heavy, the stoutest spoon was employed to heave it over and over, uneven dispersal of fruit was a constant threat. Finally, we trouped through to stir the mixture and make a wish. Mother’s evident irritation at the slowness of our dreams was apt to spoil the magic.
The oven would be given over to the baking of the cake for at least five hours. An untimely distraction at the last moment could result in the top blackening and the cake ruined. In a bad year, if squabbling children caused a burnt crust it blighted the holiday.
‘You can still smell it.’ Mother would say vengefully. ‘Even with all that brandy and the top sliced off. Let’s hope it doesn’t taste.’
We hoped and hoped.
Later, stored and wrapped in layers of grease-proof paper and foil it was taken out at weekly intervals, a darning needle inserted and fed with brandy. Finally, it was ready to decorate. The jam smeared on with a palette knife, marzipan rolled out and pressed over the top. Then with the tension rising, the Royal icing; get the consistency wrong and it would slide, this sugary avalanche, resting like white magma lapping the plate, and causing the level of panic usually associated with a serious natural disaster. If however, it behaved and could be manipulated into frosty spikes, then Father Christmas and assembled company could parade across the surface triumphant. The cake would then sit glorious on the sideboard, with strict instructions not to touch, until the guests arrived in the form of long forgotten aunts and lanky cousins. Cut into squares, we would eat the icing and marzipan discretely tucking the fruitcake, which we all hated, under a festive napkin.
I have only recently heard of the death in December 2017 of Derek Rae, artist and printmaker. A member of the Norwich 20 Group in 2009 Derek asked me to collaborate on the Voicing Visions exhibition where artists in all mediums linked with writers and poets who responded to their work.
Derek’s works were prints, one postcard from Uncle Harold from the front with his comrades in the 5th Seaforth Highlanders sent on the 12th August 1916 merged with an image of Harold in his garden after the war.
This collaboration took me on a journey through Harold’s correspondence and a remarkable family archive. I felt the responsibility lay heavily to do justice to this brave and relentlessly chipper young man. In his honour I devised an epistolary piece that quoted from his Harold’s letters and briefly Wilfred Owen.
I offer it to you now to honour the lives of Uncle Harold, his young comrades and Derek Rae at this time of remembrance.
The camera lies.
3589 Pte H.Rae
5th Seaforth Highlanders 12th August 1915
Vaporous images merge, to one side a proud Seaforth Highlander; Derek’s Uncle Harold. Kilted and companioned by nameless comrades, this behind the lines postcard bears no sign of young men’s guts, or boys buried by mud and shelling:
‘dug out very much shaken.’
Uncle Harold is a master of understatement. Fifteen yards between the bags from Harold to Fritz, mother’s rabbit pie is enjoyed. Yet above the quagmire star shells turn night into day - a son et lumière of Somme Follies. When the Mess hut is hit:
‘80 eggs have become casualties.’
Between Harold’s lines we put our head above the parapet and understand the fear of night and light and sniper assassins. Fritz is keeping tally on his Mauser butt - an iniquitous reckoning.
‘Chance’s strange arithmetic…’
Strange arithmetic spared Harold for an inter-war of welcome laughter, house parties and marrying Doth. There is no tally stick for his nightmares. Decades on they are still repeating like the Pathé Gazette in Uncle Harold’s shocking picture-house slumber. Uncle never speaks of war. Later, evacuated to Ilfracombe, young Derek crawls about the floor with parts of incendiaries, his roller skates acting as bomb floats, playing.
Trusting yourself and Ma are quite well.
Your old pal, H’
The camera lies.
 Insensibility by Wilfred Owen
We met digging in the sand. At first my brother and I kept our distance, wary and territorial, afraid that these other children would invade the hole we had dug, knock down our sandcastle, or worse, build a better one. Then a ball strayed and a cautious exchange took place. The boy became excited; I noticed that he kept slipping into a foreign language. He told us that when the tide turned the sea would flow on to our end of the beach and he said we could build a dam and dig a swimming pool; he invited us to join in. We looked at our parents expectantly. Was it safe? my mother enquired. Entirely, their father reassured her, only the far side of the channel was dangerous. The boy butted in, he explained that a siren would sound when the tide turned and you must walk back at once or risk being cut off. He said people had drowned attempting to cross the channel. He enacted a dramatic watery death struggling and gurgling, finally falling silent and limp on the sand. He didn’t remain a corpse for long bouncing back up so that names could be exchanged. He must have enjoyed his performance as he re–enacted it year after year for all new holidaymakers.
Their mother, Serefina, was Italian and as she removed her sunglasses I saw that she and her son, Guido, shared the same dark penetrating eyes. The girl, Evie, took after her English father, James. To me, Serefina looked like a film star; her swimming costume was stylish, her hair black and she was shapely with olive skin. I compared her to my own mother whose pale thighs were covered in fine blue lines like the tributaries of a complex river system. My mother spent her days teaching unruly inner–city children and her evenings with a pile of books to mark; I thought it unlikely that Mrs Hillier worked. Our names, Mark and Susan, were dull in comparison, and we were always closely supervised by our mother. I could see that my parents were smitten by this glamorous, carefree family transplanted on to our beach.
We set off, our spades dragging in the sand leaving a meandering trail, suddenly Guido handed me his spade and said,
‘I forgot to kiss Mother goodbye.’
He ran back across the beach. I watched as his mother, who by now was reclining on a sun lounger, proffered her cheek. Having delivered his kiss Guido sped towards me and seized the spade from my hand.
‘Do you always kiss your Mother goodbye?’ I asked.
‘Of course. I never know when I might see her again.’ His unflinching gaze met mine.
‘I thought this wasn’t dangerous?’
‘It isn’t, unless I want it to be,’ he replied.
He struck out across the beach waving his spade and parrying like a musketeer, periodically flicking his head to remove a stray lock of dark hair from his eyes. He was lithe, agile and long limbed. I guessed that he was older than me.
Guido marked out the rectangle and instructed us to start digging. Mark and I piled sand in a line. Evie worked at a slower pace and said little. Every so often Guido would shout out orders: higher, pack it tighter, dig deeper. We followed his instructions without question. Other children joined in and Guido divided them into work gangs with specific tasks. It was hard as the deeper sand was wet and heavy. An hour later we had cut a rectangle for the swimming pool with a bank of sand forming a levee around it and a gulley cut to channel the water into it. We stood back and waited. At first the water was a gentle trickle with a dirty froth on the forward tide, then it gathered speed. I dipped my feet in.
‘Wait!’ Guido cried. ‘You must wait until I give the command.’
He stood in the centre of the pool, our imperious master, holding his spade out to repel any overexcited child. Finally, when the water reached the bottom of his swimming trunks, he shouted:
Whooping laughing children leapt into the shallow pool. Mark went ahead of me. I stepped into the water it was just deep enough to swim; Evie joined me. By now all the children were, splashing or swimming.
‘This is a brilliant,’ I said.
‘It won’t last,’ Evie responded, ‘it never does.’ Then she swam to the opposite side and rested in the water impassive and watchful.
I swam and then floated; it was lovely, so much better than waiting for my parents to escort me to the sea and keep watch. Suddenly there was a collective groan. I looked round to see that Guido had breached the retaining sandbank; soon we were all left standing on damp sand. All that digging and building, and Guido had broken it. I looked questioningly at Evie who shrugged her shoulders, climbed out and set off back towards the hut.
‘Did you have a lovely time?’ Serefina was wearing a kaftan, a wide–brimmed hat and sipping wine.
‘Guido broke the dam again,’ Evie complained. The resigned inevitability in her tone of voice suggested she expected no sanction or criticism of her brother. I began to understand Evie’s brooding, reticent nature.
Summers with the Hilliers continued in much the same vein for the next few years. Our holidays were arranged to coincide. It suited the parents to believe that we children got on, giving them the freedom to sit on the beach sharing wine and enjoying adult conversation without interruption.
Mr Hillier was in the City and only ever came for one week. They had other holidays, their proper holidays as Serefina called them. Coming to the seaside for the Hilliers was for the benefit of their children; fresh air and the advantages of mixing with ordinary, English children. ‘They have to understand that not everyone turns left when they enter an aircraft.’ I didn’t understand the remark until my father explained that for First Class seats one turned to the left. We always turned right. They went skiing and showed us photographs of Guido and Evie haring skilfully down slopes. One year they asked us to join them, but when my father looked into the cost the plan was dropped.
Gradually Evie and I became closer and Mark seemed to get along with Guido who remained in charge and displayed the easy arrogance of the privileged — poor Evie was always in his shadow and inconsequential just for being a girl. Only once did I see her lose her temper with her brother, kicking sand at him in tearful anger and storming off. I went after her and complained about boys in general in an attempt to make her feel better.
Then one year they didn’t come and that was the end of our holidays with the Hilliers. My father took the telephone call, Evie had glandular fever and so they’d decided against the English seaside. By now we were teenagers who were beginning to grate on one another and Guido, who was allowed alcohol, proved predictably unpleasant when drunk. One day, on the hut veranda, he made a grab for my breasts and when I pushed him backwards down the steps and onto the sand, his mother just laughed.
‘Oh my poor darling — spurned,’ she said, and then turning to me. ‘Well done Susan. This is all good practice for fending off troublesome boys; you will thank us one day.’
Our parents missed Serefina and James, their absence opened up the yawning conversational gap that middle–aged couples encounter. Mark and I read our books and tried to play beach cricket with a much reduced team. The year after that we holidayed in Corsica instead, and then I went to university to read English. Our parents continued their coastal holidays, occasionally Mark and I would join them for a few days.
The job prospects for a graduate of English were poor. Study something that leads to a decent job, my father suggested. A member of parliament and his vengeful wife had just been jailed for perjury. I was fascinated by the case, the legal process, and the way the egotistical seed of their downfall sheltered inside both of them. I decided to take a law conversion. There was no funding and the fees were a fortune; it meant living in London too. Studying over two years was my only option and I got a part–time job in the stationary department of a luxury store. It sold outrageously priced diaries and journals, hand–bound in the finest leathers and secured with ornate clasps. The cost of the merchandise was such that there was no question of wasting my paltry wages, even on the smallest journal.
One day, as I arranged a display, a group of young people were queuing at the till. Glittering young people with tanned skin dressed casually in artful designer clothes, I was used to the type, trust–fund brats, there were several at law school; I went to serve them. There in front of me was Guido, a beautiful cliché, very tall, dark and exceptionally handsome.
He looked at me, puzzled.
‘Susan,’ I reminded him. ‘Summer holidays? All that digging in the sand with my brother Mark.’ Guido looked uncomfortable. Clearly he did not wish to be publicly reminded of holidaying in Norfolk however trendy it had become.
‘Uh, Susan…yes,’ he said disdainfully. The friends, two leggy blonds and a hooray–Henry sort of chap that I recognised from a reality television show, listened to our conversation.
‘How are your family? Is Evie in London? It would be great to catch up with her,’ I said, while wrapping his purchases.
‘My parents are very well, thank you — Evie lives in Rome.’
I dealt with the transaction, handed Guido his packages and said goodbye. He was polite but cool. Returning to the display I watched as the group paused beside the monogrammed stationary.
‘Who on earth was that?’ One of the girls asked giggling.
Before Guido could reply the toff goaded him.
‘Buckets and spades…doesn’t sound your sort of thing Guido.’
‘She’s a nobody,’ Guido said. And then when pushed repeated: ‘Really she’s no one, he stated emphatically, but they pressed him for more information. ‘Mother briefly entertained the absurd idea that we should mix with ordinary children.’
Then they all burst out laughing.
At the beach, I was met by the same breath–taking view; the pale sand stretching effortlessly to greet the horizon, the sea having distanced itself from the shore by several miles. The dunes were dotted with marram grass and holidaymakers basking like indolent seals. In the far distance a heat haze lingered. I spent the afternoon lying in the sun revising for the next round of exams. Later, it got chilly and so I packed up and walked along the causeway to the town.
Sitting down in a café, I ordered hot chocolate. I flicked through a discarded local newspaper filled with wind farm protests and dull civic events. I turned a page and Guido stared out at me. He stood outside a Coroner’s Court next to a middle–aged woman; Mrs Templeton.
The article went on to explain that Mr Guido Hillier had organised a party for friends, they swam out to a sandbank and later became cut off by the incoming tide. Mr Hillier agreed that they had enjoyed some wine with their picnic, but stated that no one in the party would have been over the drink drive limit. He had taken the precaution of checking the time of the incoming tide, but then left his watch in the car. Realising they were cut off they swam back across the channel. Two of the group had got into difficulties and one, Juliet Templeton, a trainee broker, had drowned. Her body washed up three weeks later further down the coast.
Shocked, I read on. Mrs Templeton stated that she didn’t want any more young lives blighted by this a tragic accident. When asked by the Coroner, Dr Gray, whether he had heard the siren, Guido Hillier said he had but explained that he didn’t know what it meant; he was completely unaware of the danger. The Coroner thanked the witnesses for their frank account of the events and made recommendations about improving the warning signs. He expressed his admiration for the dignified composure of Mrs Templeton and her generosity in encouraging the other young people involved in the tragedy to move forward with their lives.
Once again I peered into Guido’s empty soul and recalled our conversation.
‘Do you always kiss your mother goodbye?’
‘Of course, I never know when I might see her again.’
‘I thought this wasn’t dangerous?’
‘It isn’t, unless I want it to be.’
I took out my notebook and wrote down the name of the coroner and sipping the frothy chocolate I began to feel warm again.
I used to sit by the fire, below the family portrait. I liked to watch the little strips of fabric as they spun around the orange light bulbs, creating the theatrical, heatless flames. Now, looking up at the painting I see it is as artificial as the fire. My brother, Stephen, who had been sorting through the books, asked what we should do with the portrait. Burn it, I replied. He made no protest. Then he asked me if I remembered going to the studio. I did.
I had picked out a green dress; it had a little fish blowing a bubble on the front. Mother’s cotton frock was nipped in at the waist with a very wide skirt. It was a picture dress. The blocks of colour contained images of Spanish design; castanets, a flamenco dancer and a Toreador. Julie wore a dirndl skirt with an off the shoulder gypsy-style blouse, a choice that exaggerated every roll of puppy fat and pasty limb. There were six sittings at the artist’s studio; we all went to the first, but after that it was just mummy and me.
At that first sitting the artist, Lucas Mirren, spent a lot of time composing the family group and then taking photographs. I was ticked off for fidgeting by Stephen who caught somewhere between boyhood and manhood, was going through an unpleasant bossy phase. My father, who was used to having his picture taken, seemed to know what to do, how to sit, where to look. My mother spent a long time re-arranging her skirt; finally the artist stepped forward and helped adjust the wayward fabric. His hands were tanned, large and square, with a scattering of freckles, as if he spent a lot of time somewhere sunny. When I looked down at his shoes, they were covered with multi-coloured flecks of paint and his corduroy trousers had smudges of colour on them. I remembered the pungent smells; turpentine and linseed oil.
Subtle adjustments were made to the lighting and pose. Shoulders were gently manipulated, chins were held between his thumb and forefinger and tipped up or down. Lucas Mirren plucked mother’s gloves from her lap and then he made a joke of not knowing where to put them down, everywhere being so dirty covered in paint, canvases or brushes. He made great play of leaving the room with the gloves and then returning in a clownish manner. I remember him as a tall sandy-haired man, craggy, charming and urbane. I remember him as different.
His studio can’t have been far from our own house, because my mother and I walked if it was fine and only took a bus if it were raining. Although it was far enough for my legs to ache. The banisters were rich mahogany and when we got to the third floor the carpet and brass rods were replaced by thick red linoleum, with tough rubber strips bent over the edge of each step. Small dabs of paint, like a paper trail, showed the way to the studio door. I don’t recall being let into the house; no one came to the door or greeted us. Perhaps the front door was left on the latch, or did my mother have a key? Once I heard music floating up from downstairs, it was turned off abruptly when a telephone rang. I slipped out of the studio and lent over the balustrade straining to hear the distant muffled voice, then a door closed. That autumn I started school.
When I saw the finished portrait I was confused and upset. Where were my little fish and mummy’s pictures on her skirt? I thought it was a dreadful mistake; I thought daddy would be cross. In the finished painting we were all in muted shades, except for our father in his dark suit. At first I thought my parents were too polite to mention the missing textile patterns, they seemed so genuinely delighted with the painting. Years later, when I asked, daddy explained artistic license to me. Artistic license had also shrunk Julie to a slender and attractive form.
I was visiting Julie in Islington; she had agreed to look after my demanding toddler, Chloe. Julie was childless and a generous aunt. Seldom free to roam, I relished my freedom and spent the day in Covent Garden popping in an out of shops and watching street entertainers. I bought a frivolous skirt that matched my skittish mood. By three o’clock, I was hot and I was tired. I settled at a pavement café for an iced coffee, on the opposite side of the street canvases where being carried into a gallery. The gallery owner was fussing and waving his arms. A young woman with spiky red hair was pasting the letters that formed the name of the artist on the window. I looked on as the letter L unfurled, then the U. By the time the name Lucas was complete I felt an odd foreboding. She came outside to check the alignment and returned to complete the surname. The next letter was an M.
I watched the pair inside the gallery deliberating over the hanging of the pictures, then went over. The owner glanced at me and flicked his foppish hair back. Immaculately dressed, he rested somewhere between suave and camp. He glanced over at me expressing mild disinterest, no doubt evaluating the size of my wallet and quickly dismissing me as a potential buyer. I thought I might be asked to leave; the exhibition was clearly not ready, so I asked if Lucas Mirren was still alive and was told he had died a year ago. The gallery owner unwrapped another painting, it was a reclining nude. It was my mother.
I stepped backwards; my shoulder caught the edge of the door. I took an urgent breath, recovered and continued my walk around the edge of the gallery. From the canvases my mother stared back at me, holding my gaze, blatant and cool, with an undeniable sexual frisson. A fleeting memory followed; the tender removal of her coat, Lucas burying his face in my mother’s silk scarf. The gallery lights glared white and hot, I became lightheaded and weak. That they were lovers was clear to me. When did that start, before the family portrait or later? Was the portrait just a ruse, a way of spending time together? As I progressed around the gallery so too did the images of my mother. I stared at her aging flesh, the inky rope of her veins, the translucent soft tissue and historical tan marks; a relic of our family holidays in Brittany.
I wondered when she could have posed. I guessed it was during the school day when daddy was abroad. Her nakedness was unsettling. Our mother was sensuous, elegant and self-contained. Our mother, who made Victoria sponge and fish paste sandwiches and met me from school everyday. Who asked about what I had been doing in Miss Eliot’s class, and when I was old enough and polite enough to enquire about her day, would reply, nothing much, housework…baking. Sometimes she would sing or hum a tune, while I skipped home beside her. I always thought she was happy.
My scrutiny of the paintings aroused the curiosity of the gallery owner, who asked if I was an admirer of Lucas Mirren? I found myself telling him that Mirren had painted a group portrait of my family, I told him it was mawkish, he flinched at the word. He went on to explain that artists have to eat, he was trying to be charming, but underneath I sensed his contempt. He asked if I knew the model. I lied and said I did not. I knew he had detected this lie. He explained that Mirren had not presented a canvas of Rachel for years, that Mirren devotees wondered what had happened to her. I guessed that such speculation would include her death. But our mother wasn’t dead; she was very much alive, about now she would be asking my father what he wanted for supper. Father had retired, that surely ended her career as model, muse and lover. The owner was talking at me, he mentioned the private view and he dropped the catalogue and an invitation into my bag. I kept looking at his mouth, the rapid movement of his tongue and the saliva connecting in viscous threads; the heat was overpowering…the lights…his words…my mother. I made for the door and fled.
I missed my stop; the bus had already reached the far end of Essex Road so I struggled past the standing passengers and walked back to Islington Green where I dropped onto a bench.
My parents had a model marriage, or so I believed. They had their disagreements and irritations, but amongst their peers their relationship was held up as an example. A marriage to aspire too, an aunt stated, as I prepared for my wedding day. My late, failed marriage made me feel that I had let the side down. It was growing dark and the homeless were beginning to select their benches for the night, I gathered up my bags.
Julie had cooked pasta and opened wine; I went to have a shower. When I returned to the living room Chloe had upturned the shopping bags, and found the toy giraffe I had bought for her. The skirt lay in a heap; the catalogue lay next to it. Julie swooped down and plucked it from the floor, she turned the pages. I tried lamely to pacify her. Reasoning with my sister always was impossible. Julie, drama queen and snitch, who ran to our parents and blurted out everything, from illicit smoking, to dire exam results; I could always rely on Julie to expose my flaws and misdemeanors with relish and at the most inopportune moment. Ours was an uneasy alliance.
Returning from the gallery the following day she said that they were far worse than she could have imagined, sighting the painstaking level of detail. She said that they made Lucien Freud look myopic. I laughed at that, replying that I thought that they were tender and refreshing; celebrating the form of an aging woman. But Julie called it a twilight age; she said the paintings were repugnant and disgusting. Then more thoughtfully she said; daddy’s face still lights up when she enters the room. For how much longer I wondered.
The Sunday papers carried reviews and a feature article with full colour photographs. Mirren was enjoying a revival. A week later my father’s car left the road. His injuries were slight, although he was never quite the same after the accident. Mother descended into a small interior space, she no longer sang or baked. Her memory failed her, a stroke heralded the end.
The air in the house was heavy and stale and all its little faults; broken window catches, dripping taps and leaky guttering, took on a significance previously disguised by activity and harmony. Sadness was present in every lifted corner of wallpaper and each inadequately wiped stain. Stephen threw the painting onto the pyre and together we watched as the flames lapped the edge of mother’s skirt. The paint seared, peeled and lifted. A palette of vivid sparks flew off into the night sky, as if the Spanish pictures hidden in the under-painting celebrated mother’s vivacity and gave flight to her spirit.
As a writer and an artist I am naturally drawn to working with objects; many of my published stories centre on an object, painting or artist. My MA Writing the Visual was unlike any other creative writing course in the country, directed by the internationally acclaimed poet, George Szirtes, it felt tailor made for me. Set in an art school, my cohort was a fascinating mix of painters, sculptors, photographers who had also developed a passion for writing.
After graduating I was invited to work at Norwich Cathedral and the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts and so my association with iconic buildings, collections and artefacts began. I soon discovered that teaching creative writing with the support of a team of interpreters and guides has a remarkable effect on novice writers. The stumbling block for many writers is the lack of a stock of thought–provoking ideas. Removed from the burden of having to come up with ‘inspiration’ to order, they are enticed into discovering stories through research and contact with objects and the local environment. This is the perfect way to gain confidence, inspiration arrives, anxiety dissolves and enthusiasm takes over. Research is the writers’ friend; stories are prised from the past or an imagined future, crafted, honed and shaped — this is literary alchemy.
In September I will be embarking on another creative journey with a new group of students at Wells Maltings. Together we will explore the history of the building, the local and coastal environment, if you would like to participate or need further information please use the links below.
For more information www.patriciamullin.com
A ten week course beginning Tuesday 18th Sept 10-12.30am Wells Maltings. Early booking is advised.
For bookings https://wellsmaltings.savoysystems.co.uk/WellsMaltings.dll/
I will be announcing new courses for 2018 soon. If you require mentoring (perfect for anyone needing help with a novel, short story collection or just wanting some focus on their creative enterprises. ) Please get in touch.
It is lovely to be back at the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts. This is the anniversary year for the Sainsbury Centre, it is 40 years old! And looking just as youthful as the day it was built. It is the most wonderful building with so many fascinating artefacts and an exciting programme of special exhibitions and events. Occasionally I come across people in the county who have never visited, I would urge them to so, we have the most extraordinary collection on our doorstep and the building itself is an icon.
I haven’t made any New Year resolutions, given that statistics show that most people have broken them by mid-January, they serve no real purpose. I do however have a folder entitled 2017 The Plan and soon to be renamed 2018 The Plan. It has a number of categories, ten in all, beginning with the overall plan it features domestic plans (such as the conversion of the studio in 2017) and then a number of work categories. I check it throughout the year and adjust accordingly; it gives me an overall picture to the scope of my yearly ambitions and acts as benchmark.
I’m inveterate list maker although these can be a horrible ball and chain as items frequently get dragged from one day’s list to the next with no satisfactory sense of completion. A yearly plan is different, when a project hasn’t got off the ground I can assess the reasons why. Often it is entirely out of my hands, perhaps dependent on the cogs of an organisation to turn; there were three failures to launch in 2017. Some domestic projects, like six months in design and planning and then a twenty weeks build can set back or derail any number of winning ideas.
Interestingly, as I look down the 2017 categories not one is writing. You may find this extraordinary for someone who is a writer, but this is because the writing gets done whatever. It is my life blood, the written page is one area I have control over, at least in the early stages. So immediately after turning out the detritus thrown haphazardly into my study during the festive period I will, once again be happily settled at my keyboard tapping my way into a creative 2018.
On the theme of writing may I pass on this interesting Ted Talk by Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown Literary Agency ‘How to Write a Best Seller’ - with thanks to Katherine Gregor for sending me the link.
My blog will be updated monthly and will look at issues that are of interest to writers and readers. Do add your comments and I will do my best to respond. Please keep them legal, decent and honest.