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From London to Berwick: Culture shock? Oh, yes!

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This book will change your life…

Berwick Literary Festival runs from the evening of Thursday 19th October to the afternoon of Sunday 22nd October 2017. There’s a wonderful array of events and speakers. I’m lucky enough to be doing a bit of blogging for the Festival. I thought I’d share my posts here but you’ll also find them over on the Festival website along with loads of other useful programme information.

What’s so great about books and literary festivals?

Well, books really do have the power to change lives and influence the reader in both subtle and startling ways. They also help us set down markers in time: what were you reading thirty-one years ago?

Thirty-one years ago, I was engrossed in Olivia Manning’s The Balkan and Levant Trilogies, collectively known as The Fortunes of War. The BBC was planning to make a series of Manning’s fabulous and complex tale of war-torn Europe. My job back then was to write pre-publicity for potential BBC TV programmes to attract co-production investment.  The Beeb’s serialisation of Fortunes of War was broadcast in 1987. Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson starred as Guy and Harriet Pringle (Ken and Em later married and subsequently divorced).

Wind the clock forward to the year 2000 and I was reading Secrets of the flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman. Not for work this time, but for sheer pleasure. When I did my French A level, one of our set books was Colette’s Le blé on herbe. I loved the book and was fascinated by Colette’s racy life and works.

 

My eldest daughter was born in 1987. Her name is Harriet. My younger daughter was born 14 years later in 2001. Her name is Colette.

Hence, my daughters both carry monikers from my literary influences (actually, Colette’s middle name is Nancy because the Husband loved Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons). We were moved by these stories, these writers, to such a degree that we incorporated them into our family’s heritage.

A good writer shines a light on the tangible and intangible in a way that can frequently become more meaningful to you, the reader, than the sum of their written words. A good writer tells a story – whether it be fictional or factual – in a way that has you rolling the story around in your mind. A good writer leaves you wanting to know why they chose a subject and why and how they structured it the way they did. In short, good writing leaves you a little bit (and sometimes a lot) changed. And sometimes, when you really think about it, you can trace thoughts, ideas and even actions back to something you read way back when. This is why I love literary festivals and hearing the ins and outs of others’ writing processes.

One of the reasons the Berwick Literary Festival is such a great weekend is that it recognises the importance of reading and writing across the community. And, even if you’re not involved in some elements of the Festival, you can feel its wide-reaching inclusivity and accessibility in the way it’s organised. There are events and competitions specifically for local schools, poetry readings in care homes for the elderly, workshops for aspiring writers and, of course, local and national writers for your delectation and entertainment.

You’ll find information on topics and speakers at our fourth Berwick Literary Festival here and you can book events on The Maltings’ website. Don’t forget to visit our Facebook page, find us on Instagram and follow us on Twitter.

Over the next couple of months I intend to catch up with some of our contributors and give you the lowdown on what they’ll be up to at the festival. I shall also be posting about our lovely town of Berwick and some of the spaces and places you might check out on your visit here.

So, don’t be strangers: there’s plenty to chat about.  why not read a book by one of this year’s writers before the festival kicks off in October? It might just be something you remember years from now. Here’s a selection of books by festival contributors you might like to read before your visit (check out the full programme for more books and authors):

 

 

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A force to be reckoned with: Iain Lowson on how not to do things properly

Berwick Literary Festival runs from the evening of Thursday 19th October to the afternoon of Sunday 22nd October 2017. There’s a wonderful array of events and speakers. I’m lucky enough to be doing a bit of blogging for the Festival. I thought I’d share my posts here but you’ll also find them over on the Festival website along with loads of other useful programme information.

Iain Lowson will be chatting about his career as a freelance writer at the Festival and I caught up with him for a preview – and cake, of course!

Iain Lowson says he’s a case study in ‘how not to do things properly’. Considering Iain makes his living as a freelance commercial writer, largely producing work for the Disney Star Wars franchise, it’s an interesting self-analysis. I caught up with Iain at The Corner House café, the Literary Festival Hub.

As I munched my way through a slab of Nutella and Peanut Butter cake (obscenity laws mean I cannot post a pic), Iain explained just how he’s not done things properly all his life. He’s a wannabe actor and university dropout, a drifter who left serial jobs in retail to start writing, a blagger who talked his way into writing a Star Wars column 25 years back, a graduate in Egyptology, a grafter who believes that the only route into writing is to write.

Iain is also extremely droll and, with his twirly moustache, twinkly eyes, trademark waistcoat and warm Scottish burr, pretty much personifies one of the many fictional characters he has helped style over the years. Once upon a time, Iain leapt aboard a Silver Fox Coach (‘like Trainspotting on wheels’) to travel overnight from Edinburgh to London to place his copy into the right hands and ensure he was ‘visible’ to the right people. Nowadays, he leaves his house each morning and walks 15 steps to the garden shed.

In this wooden Tardis, Iain pores over his cornucopia of books, merchandise, papers, trinkets and paraphernalia and develops the ‘in universe’ stories of Star Wars. That is to say, the behind-the-scenes tales, the explorations of character backstories and storylines, and the production narratives. All of his research and creative insight is refined into features for Star Wars partwork subscriber magazines. Yes, from this small shed in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Iain’s work travels all over Europe, Japan, Russia, the States, Argentina… outer space.

Iain’s had the nod that the work from the Star Wars franchise will keep rolling his way to 2020 and beyond. He has good reason to feel confident: Disney (who bought Lucas Film in 2012) gave a Product Innovation Award to a recent project. The huge scale model of the Millennium Falcon, which ran across 100 magazine issues, was one of the most successful partwork series ever.

The Millennium Falcon

Iain’s enjoyed several Star Wars-related magic moments. A favourite is the time the fabulous Christopher Lee (Sith Lord Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005)) was handed an Iain Lowson article to help him build his characterisation pre-filming. Iain says, ‘To think that Christopher Lee studied my stuff… that’s a real buzz’.

So, as I say, it’s difficult to see how all this can be construed as ‘not doing things properly’.  Iain thinks that walking away from his job at Wonderland Models in Edinburgh, after a particularly grim Christmas in the early 90s, was maybe not the wisest move. He subsequently endured ‘abject poverty for four years’.

Nevertheless, Iain is pretty much the living embodiment of his own adage: if you want to write, write.  He says you need to ‘Hone your craft by doing it: If you’re not practising, you’re not getting better’.  Iain subscribes to Spy Kids’ creator Robert Rodriguez’ approach of  leaving the big guns to do what they do; while you get on with creative life, make a living doing what you’re good at – and enjoy doing it.

Coincidentally, Iain is currently reading David Mamet: On Directing Film and is working on a project with local improv comedy group Damp Knight. Iain’s written a script (‘I don’t write comedy, I write stuff that’s funny. Drama and comedy improve each other’). I can’t help feeling that the resulting work will be worth looking out for.

Festival info on Iain Lowson (check programme for full details):

At the Festival: Iain  will be chatting about his life as a freelance writer – with a focus on the force that is the Star Wars franchise – with Mark Vevers, a local actor, comedian and performer.

Where: St Paul’s, Spittal

When: Friday 20th October, 12 noon

 

A mother & daughter moment with pastel de nata

So the 15-year-old has just been to Portugal. She came home longing for those gorgeous, sticky custard pastries whose sweetness is so cleverly balanced by an ethereal hint of lemon and cinnamon. She remembered that I had a recipe tucked away somewhere and asked me to dig it out. Turns out it was an old BBC Good Food recipe (this is a slightly different recipe to the one we tried).

I remember so keenly cooking with my Mum. Mostly it involved me licking the spoon after cake-making, making pastry animals with off-cuts, and stirring grated cheese into cheese sauce and saying, ‘I’m bored’. Mum always maintained that I showed no interest in cooking whatsoever and that trying to teach me was pointless. Despite this, I do remember Mum showing me how to make a roux (so useful!). I suspect that my love of cooking comes largely from hanging around and watching her cook (and eating the results!) and, even if in her eyes I was disdainful of it all, her skills seem to have rubbed off: I’m a pretty good cook!

So I was chuffed that the 15-year-old wanted to cook with me. In fact she’s been showing an increasing interest in experimenting – cooking us scrambled eggs for lunch, trying out different ways with pancakes etc. But Portuguese egg custard tarts would certainly be pushing her skills.

I was in charge of weighing and setting out equipment. The 15-year-old occupied herself with being a bit tetchy (she’d been working late as a pot-washer in a local hotel the previous night!) and making the cinnamon-lemon syrup and the custard. This was slightly fraught but much beating and a quick sieve solved everything (isn’t that exactly the way to learn how ingredients behave?)!

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The custard cooling post beating and sieving

Energy levels had waned by the time it came to rolling and cutting the ready-roll puff pastry! However, the repartee while I made pastry discs (all that making pastry animals paid off Mum!) and the 15-year-old inserted them into the buttered muffin tray was second to none!

Look, the result wasn’t perfect – I forgot to put the muffin tray on a pre-heated baking sheet so we had a bit of Mary Berry’s proverbial soggy bottoms. But they tasted great. And maybe this will be a moment that my 15-year-old will look back on warmly one day – I know I shall.

Community green spaces: a precious commodity

One of the most cherished and central aspects of community life is shared green spaces – areas where people congregate, walk the dog, go for a run, enjoy a moment of contemplation, take in a stunning view, or sit on a warm bench and flick through their copy of the Berwick Advertiser!

            In Berwick, we are blessed with some gorgeous bits of the great outdoors. Over the last four years or so it has been a delight to see the parks around the castle and the station – Castle Vale Park and Coronation Park – become welcoming and cared-for spaces once more. This renaissance was spearheaded through the County Council’s Strategic Parks Project and largely funded by Heritage Lottery money. The parks – and all the community events that take place in them – are lovingly tended by Parks Manager Kate Morison and her small band of volunteers. It’s a massive job and always a work in progress. That’s gardening for you: it is frustrating and demanding; it’s also life-enhancing on a range of levels.

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Meadow flowers in Coronation Park. Even ‘relaxed’ gardens require careful planning and attention.

            Events in the parks (mostly free) are instrumental in engaging the community and ensuring our common spaces are used in ways that are positive and beneficial for all – and for raising funds for tools and plants. We have a Dawn Chorus walk, an Easter Bunny Hunt, a ‘Meet the Ancestors Day’, a Beastie Hunt (see below), and a Halloween event. There will soon be a new sculpture trail. Sculptor David Gross specialises in large wooden sculptures and is workshopping with local schools to develop a sculpture trail in the parks based on the children’s designs. It’s so exciting to see young people engaging with our open spaces in constructive and dynamic ways. Such initiatives are surely a massive investment in the future of our parks.

            The recent Open Parks & Garden Day (pics below) was an opportunity to buy plants, chat with Kate and volunteers about the parks, and visit seven private gardens. From Tintagel House at the foot of Bank Hill, to Castle Hills House (the former maternity hospital) you could meander from garden to garden, meet gardeners, enjoy the eclectic mix of gardens on offer, guzzle huge quantities of tea and cake, and support the upkeep of the parks along the way. It’s the second year Open Parks & Garden has taken place – this year we raised over £600: thank you! – and we’re already planning next year’s event. If your garden is reasonably near Castle Vale Park or Coronation Park, why not join in next year? Just get in touch with Kate (see below).

            Mind you, things may look quite different next year. Lottery funding for the parks ends in June 2018 and so, therefore, does the funding for Kate’s job. With no paid parks manager to co-ordinate volunteers, devote time and expert knowledge to maintaining the parks and the rolling programme of events, it will be a tall order to keep these beautiful spaces as accessible and cared-for as they are now. It seems mad that so much money should go into refurbing these green spaces, only for them to decline again a few years later.  Of course, the Friends of Castle Parks are doing our best to try to ensure that will not happen and it’s possible (but by no means certain) that Kate’s contract may be extended for a year. But then what? These public green spaces bring communities together in so many ways, it’s worth fighting to keep them professionally managed. It’s a tough battle: resources are being taken away from parks all over the country. The Friends need all the support we can get. Do make your voices heard by speaking with your local town and county councillors, joining the Friends group and/or volunteering in the parks.

More information:

www.friendsofcastleparks.org

kate.morison@northumberland.gov.uk

(A version of this article was first published in the Berwick Advertiser 20 July 2017)

 

Mouth of the Tweed: inspired by local produce

Today I toddled along to the sixth Annual Mouth of the Tweed event here in Berwick-upon-Tweed. There’s a nice buzz on the quayside as tourists and locals sample food and drink from the dozen or so stalls – all produced within a 16-mile radius of Berwick – with entertainment by young local musicians from the Small Hall Band.

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My true aim was to help with the Berwick Slow Food stall – we are promoting two events:

  1. The 10th annual Berwick Food & Beer Festival  During the first weekend of September 2017 Berwick Barracks will be alive with food, music, beer and children’s activities (so if you missed the Mouth of the Tweed, fear not, you’ll be able to catch all today’s stall holders and many more in September!).
  2. This year we’re holding a pre-festival event – an Audience with MasterChef Finalist Lorna Robertson. Lorna’s a local young woman, schooled at Berwick Academy, and her trajectory since reaching the finals of the much-loved BBC show is thrilling and compelling. Lorna will talk about her experience on the show and share some of the highs and lows of that time, as well as the adventures she’s been having since. It’s a ticketed event that includes canapés using local produce, based on Lorna’s recipes. (For more info follow the link to the Food & Beer Festival above).

Of course, I knew I would not leave the Mouth of the Tweed Festival empty handed. Who can resist local honey from Chainbridge Honey Farm? Or super fresh shellfish from Berwick Shellfish? Or a burger from Well Hung and Tender and maybe a pie from Jarvis Pickle, all washed down with a locally roasted coffee from Northern Edge Coffee or (and?) a pint from local brewer Bear Claw? And it would be rude not to finish with an ice cream from Giacopazzi’s.

However, the real treat came in chatting with the chaps from Heatherslaw Mill. You can make porridge and flapjacks with oatflakes – I knew that. But, I wondered, what do you actually do with oatmeal (I know, I’m so ignorant!). Apparently oatmeal is delicious sprinkled over your potatoes before you roast them for an extra crispy coating and also for making oatcakes (doh!). Oatcakes that would no doubt be just yummy with a nice slab of local Doddington cheese.

I was lost. All I could think about was getting home and making my cheesy oatcakes. Yes, I was going to grate my tangy fruity Berwick Edge into my oatcake mix. I did an online search for a recipe and this Mumsnet one seemed suitably simple.

And, hey presto! There’s been a bit of an oatcake renaissance lately, with the nibble-sized ones widely available in supermarkets. The babies above tick all the boxes. AND they’ll be perfect for canapés – I’ll have a word with Lorna Robertson!

 

Dirty rice: an easy filthy treat!

No sooner had I read Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe for Dirty Rice in The Guardian than marvellous MasterChef contestant Alison was cooking it on the BBC TV programme (her own version). Sadly for Alison, this was the dish that saw her wave farewell to the programme. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more from her and am absolutely delighted to see that she and fellow finalists, Giovanna and Berwick’s own lovely Lorna have teamed up to form a supper club: Three Girls Cook.

Anyway, back to Dirty Rice. It doesn’t sound that great, does it? Reading Yotam’s recipe sold it to me. Minced pork and chicken livers. Yes please! Yotam is very specific about deglazing the pan multiple times: and he’s right, the depth of flavour is truly divine.

It’s a great supper dish: not difficult but filling and wholesome. In fact, I just ate the leftovers with an avocado halved on top and extra sprinklings of parsley. Yum. Yotam crushed some garlic and sliced some. The crushed is added to the cooking pot; the sliced is fried and sprinkled as a garnish after everything’s been combined. Personally I just chopped the lot and chucked it in. Still delicious. Yotam’s recipe as printed in the Guardian had a flaw:  the rice mysteriously appeared in with the meat mix (this wouldn’t work: the rice would be overcooked, I think). I opted to combine the meat mix with the rice after the deglazing process and gave a final parsley flourish to the melange.

The Husband and I had basically scoffed the lot when I realised I’d not taken a photo. Just call me slacker blogger. It looked pretty much like Yotam’s if you follow the link above: not a looker of a dish and I can kind of see why Alison struggled to prettify it enough for John & Gregg. However it tastes marvellous and presents all sorts of possibilities – but it’s the livers that deliver that true umami deliciousness.

Here, by way of an apology for my lack of photographic evidence of culinary endeavour, are some photos of a Yotam Ottolenghi feast The Husband and I prepared a while back:

I’m aware of bowel cancer. Obvs. But I don’t fit the profile, do I?

It’s bowel cancer awareness month. The thing about awareness is that it doesn’t necessarily equate to action. And it’s action as well as awareness that Bowel Cancer UK are focusing on this month.

Bowel cancer is treatable and curable especially if diagnosed early. The problem is that going to the doctor can feel like a faff for symptoms easy to attribute to other things…For example:

Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a tummy upset, piles, just your metabolism, busy life – we’re all a bit knackered, right?

Perhaps you check out the symptoms on a website. It may say something like ‘Most people with these symptoms (see below) do not have bowel cancer’. It will continue that you should still get checked out by your GP – but maybe you don’t really fit the profile of someone with bowel cancer…

You’re fit (ish) – or maybe you’re even very fit; you eat a balanced (ish) diet – maybe you’re a vegetarian or a vegan; maybe you’re young – 30s or younger, say. Maybe you like a few glasses of wine or beer or maybe not. But you are certainly not the classic profile of someone with bowel cancer.

So, what is the classic profile of someone with bowel cancer?

It’s a 35-year-old deputy head teacher who’s a bit of a fitness freak and a vegetarian… you can read more about her (you may have seen her on Breakfast TV yesterday, 1 April 2017) here

It’s a pharmacist in his early 50s who walks his dogs and is training to be a hypnotherapist – find out more about him here

It’s a 40-year-old teetotal knitting and sewing vegan who’s studying for a doctorate who blogs here

It’s a 39-year-old beautician who, as far as I’m aware (and you’re probably relieved to know), does not blog!

And it’s me. A 53-year-old woman (when diagnosed) who walks marathons and enjoys a madly busy life.

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Here I am with my beautiful London daughter, good to go for the 2012 Edinburgh Moonwalk.

I am eternally grateful for trained medical professionals who do not find my body embarrassing, revolting or unapproachable. They just want me to be well.

If you are in the slightest bit worried about stuff to do with your bowel, don’t hang about: go to the doctor. Doctors are not embarrassed about putting a finger in your rectum to check you out, they do not find it an inconvenience to refer you for a colonoscopy, send you for blood tests, or get you to do poo sticks (not pooh sticks, that’s something else entirely!). And that’s another thing, if you are of an age where you receive the testing kit in the post (screening is for over-60s in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, over-50s in Scotland: yes, I know, not one of my friends listed above is over 60!), don’t put it to one side for later. Do it. Now.

Here is a list of possible symptoms you might experience:

  • Bleeding from your bottom and/or blood in your poo
  • A change in bowel habit lasting three weeks or more
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Extreme tiredness for no obvious reason
  • A pain or lump in your tummy

Find out more at Bowel Cancer UK

 

Scanning for stress: the villanelle

I’ve always enjoyed writing poetry. A good poem captures the essence of a moment or idea and satisfies the reader and writer in a way that is quenching.

However, studying poetry during the course of my Open University degree in English Language and Literature (I graduate this year – hurrah!), has made me realise what a poor ear I have for metre.

It’s only when you come to write in classic forms such as the villanelle, or attempt a sonnet in true iambic pentameter, that you realise that you have a natural sense of the rhythms and cadences of language: or if it’s something you’re just going to have to keep working at.

The Husband was an English and Drama student at Bristol back in the day when Brunel’s SS Great Britain was towed across the Atlantic and along the River Avon (it’s now a brilliant museum). The Husband went on to write plays complete with amusing ditties for The Covent Garden Theatre Company. He is a fine linguist and can trip off jolly and clever original rhymes that scan at the drop of the proverbial hat. He has the ear for language that I always longed for. I’m sure being musical helps and, although I love music, I am not music-literate. For years I thought scanning was all about having the same number of syllables in each line rather than the spoken emphasis placed on those syllables.

When you study another language, you develop a bit more awareness of the way syllables are stressed or not, simply because stresses tend to fall differently in other languages. Despite studying French beyond A level, I still get totally confounded by stressed and unstressed syllables in the English language. No amount of da-DUMs and symbols seem to help. Of course there are examples that make it seem so obvious: photographer and photograph (just in case you’re thinking ‘why?’, the first syllable in ‘photographer’ is unstressed whilst in ‘photograph’ it’s stressed – say them out loud). Or try saying ‘present’ (as in the noun ‘gift’) and then ‘present’ (as in the verb ‘giving someone something’). The Wikipedia page ‘Stress (linguistics)’ gives a good basic rundown on the whole thing – or if that seems like heavy going you’ll find a rather jolly guide to stress and metre here (it’s American – so meter rather than metre).

Writing in a so-called constrained form such as the sonnet or villanelle focuses the mind on these aspects and is a good training ground. Here’s how Bill Greenwell explains the villanelle in ‘The Creative Writing Handbook’:

“A villanelle depends on the repeated use of two lines, initially the first and third, throughout its nineteen lines. These two lines each make four appearances and are the closing two lines, so the sense of a refrain is very powerful indeed. Here are the rules for a villanelle:

  • There is no set pattern for the rhythm, although each line uses the same rhythm (commonly three, four or five beats to the line).
  • It uses only two rhymes (a and b) and is nineteen lines long.
  • In its most exacting form, the first line recurs with the same words in the sixth, twelfth and eighteenth line; the third line reappears as the ninth, fifteenth and final line.
  • The first and third lines use the a rhyme, and the overall scheme is arranged in five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a quatrain (a four-line stanza), as follows: aba aba aba aba aba abaa .

As you can see, there is some working backwards involved in attempting a villanelle. The moment you have chosen the first line, you have chosen the penultimate line, and the moment you have chosen the third line, you have the final line. You are always going to be working towards that final refrain” (2009, p. 229).

And there we have it. Here’s my attempt at a villanelle.It is not ‘in its most exacting form’ or, indeed, perfect in rhythm or metre. However, it was a satisfying exercise and I was relatively pleased with the outcome:

Beyond

I look beyond the pebbled shore,
where stilted waders peck and pray,
to waves that draw me to their core.

Muscular waves. Sinewed and sure,
binding the turbulent affray.
I look. Beyond the pebbled shore

splashes and bursts of foamy spores
salted colours of ozone, spray
and waves that draw me. At their core,

churning beneath the lithe furore,
fine surface slips on steady clay.
I look beyond the pebbled shore

how dreams are dazzled by the roar,
ripped from their anchor. Slipped away
to waves that draw me to their core.

Waders and waves fret and explore
fresh glistening veins exposed to prey.
I look beyond the pebbled shore
to waves that draw me to their core.

References
Greenwell, B. (2009) ‘Poetry: the freedom of form’ in Neale, D. (ed) A Creative Writing Handbook, MiltonKeynes/London, A&C Black in association with The Open University.

World Cancer Day – Feb 4th 2017

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Here’s a scary selfie to encourage you to support World Cancer Day on February 4th. Bowel Cancer UK is one of the ten charities aiming to get people talking about particular cancers, spotting and responding to symptoms, and dealing with treatments

Bowel Cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in the UK. As someone who’s just completed treatment for it, I  highly recommend that you get checked out if you’re at all worried. You can find a list of symptoms on the Bowel Cancer UK and NHS sites. You’ll find my own experience of discovering I had bowel cancer here.

I’m not a great fan of the language that’s developed around cancer. To me, terms like ‘beating’ and ‘fighting’ cancer are loaded and even unhelpful – you can read about why I personally feel that way here. However, I do believe that the more we talk openly about cancer, discuss the symptoms, and acknowledge the realities of living with it and through treatments for it, the more likely we are to save lives. Bowel cancer, for example, is treatable and curable if diagnosed early.

My own two favourite local charities that support people with life-shortening and terminal illnesses here in Berwick-upon-Tweed are HospiceCare North Northumberland and Cancer Cars (Berwick and District Cancer Support Group). I would urge you to support one or both of these splendid organisations. Alternatively, give to one of the big charities to support nationwide and worldwide cancer initiatives. Then get your phone out and promote a wider understanding of cancer and its symptoms by posting a wonderful selfie with a funky band!

 

 

Today is the time and place for miracles

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We invest so much into beginnings. We wish for better. Or for different. Or for change. And New Year is the classic time when we decide this is the moment that it’s all going to happen. It’s a time to breathe in new possibilities and exhale what’s past. Despite all the partaaays!, and Auld Lang Synes, and live-like-every-day’s-your-lasts, an indefinable profundity drapes itself around the start of a year. And what better place to be at such a time than the home of Hogmanay: Edinburgh.

Even before we’d arrived at the top of the Waverley Steps by the station, there was an expectant thrum about the place. It was New Year’s Eve or, in northern parlance, Old Year’s Night. Roads were being cordoned and stages erected amongst the shoppers and sightseers of Princes Street. Unlike London at times of mass gatherings, Edinburgh did not appear to groan under the weight but rather to expand happily to receive the flood of anticipation, awe and anxiety that comes with one year’s end and the next’s beginning. I deposited my daughter at the hip eatery Indigo Yard on Charlotte Lane with an agreement to meet in a couple of hours’ time.

Free! I tripped along Queensferry Street, past Randolph Crescent (which always makes me think of its namesake in London’s Maida Vale where I used to live), towards the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Suddenly I was in Alexander McCall Smith’s book A Work of Beauty ‘under the towering Dean Bridge’ and in the cobbled streets of Dean Village. I’ve been there before, but in that moment it felt fresh and new.

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To arrive moments later at Nathan Coley’s illuminated installation There will be no miracles here, is surreal in the very finest way. What more thought-provoking piece of art could you wish for when mangers and shepherds have still to be mothballed. I am perhaps particularly sensitive to the concept of the miraculous: this time last year I had just come through a major operation and, in truth, was not sure whether I would still be around a year later. But here I was. Here I am. A miracle of sorts.

The Joan Eardley A Sense of Place exhibition at Gallery Two (until 21st May 2017) is a profound experience in its own right. Eardley tenaciously sketched and painted the tenements and people of Glasgow’s Townhead and the brutal and evocative landscape around Catterline just south of Aberdeen during the 50s. The exhibition is a tour de force that encapsulates the human and, specifically, one individual’s relationship with time and place. For Eardley this began with buildings in Glasgow and then extended to people – particularly children – who she portrayed with a curious and memorable blend of gritty macabre and Pierrot sentimentality. In Catterline, her initial focus was on the ramshackle fishermen’s cottages, rather than the stunning coastal views below the village. As you progress through this well-curated exhibition you are drawn into Joan’s world of urgent painting. From fishing creels to graffitied shopfronts, her’s is an emotive and at times jarring vision. You feel that she wanted to capture this moment, this place, to stop them being lost.

As I walked back to the meeting place I’d set with my daughter, I enjoyed the failing light and the drizzle. There was something about the water-smeared festive lights that brought a fitting wistfulness to the glitzy shop windows, fairylight-draped hotels, and spinning fairground rides. The fireworks later would be fabulous, but we were not staying to see them this time. Our moment here was done. As we sat on the train back south to Berwick-upon-Tweed, I felt strongly the creative miracle of time and place. And I thought how I would love to live 2017 not as if each day were my last but as if it were my first. Now that would be a miracle.

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