Border Lines

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

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Haiku-ing in Japan

I’ve always wanted to visit Japan. Fascinated by bonsai, tea ceremonies, geisha, sushi and a culture that seems so very, very different to anything I know and truly understand. Well, I’ve been lucky enough to spend 12 amazing days in this extraordinary country. Between my marvellous London Daughter, Lonely Planet and Instagrammer HungryNYC, we have soaked up food, culture and Japan-ness in liberal quantities. The fact is, you really do need a leader on a tour like this: someone who knows that you have to collect you Japan Rail passes from the station before you do anything else; and that you can reserve seats on Shinkansen if you arrive half an hour or so before your bullet train departs; who’s checked out about dumplings and sushi and fluffy pancakes and teppanyake and sprawling markets; who knows about naked bathing in onsen (hot spring baths); and who’s had the foresight to book tickets for the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo before your trip (no tickets are sold at the museum).

I decided to record our trip with daily haikus. I wasn’t totally religious about my application of the exacting rules of haiku which The Poetry Foundation summarises as:

‘A Japanese verse form most often composed, in English versions, of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables. A haiku often features an image, or a pair of images, meant to depict the essence of a specific moment in time.’

Frankly, Matsuo Bashō, the great 17th-century Japanese writer, has nothing to worry about. According to my guide book (not a patch on Lonely Planet) Bashō was so moved by the building of Shin Ohashi (that’s New Great Bridge) in Edo in 1693 that he wrote this:

How grateful I feel

as I step crisply over

the frost on the bridge

Nevertheless, my haikus captured the essence of our days travelling from Osaka to Koya-san, Nara, Kyoto, Hakone, Tokyo and back to Osaka. If you’re going to Japan (or, actually, if you’re not!) I can highly recommend a daily haiku.

Day one: Osaka

A lid is lifted

on a paintbox of colours

our senses are blurred

Jetlagged, we stumbled from our hostel into the streets of Osaka. In Dotombori, neon signs were stacked on neon signs. We hoped for okonomiyaki (a kind of-everything-in, cooked-at-your-table omelette – more later) and tako-yaki (octopus dumplings). In the event we were slightly overwhelmed by this first stop in Osaka but started our Japanese odyssey with a senses-overload wander around the breathtaking Kurumon Ichiba market, too dazed to take pictures or try the sumptuous and frequently startling food that bubbled, sizzled and winked at us as we passed. However, we did have a cracking meal at Mimiu Honten a traditional-style restaurant where we had their famed udon suki and a bento box of delights.

Day two: Osaka to Koya-san

For a country known

for reserve and zen Japan

is very noisy

In Japan there is a sound or melody for everything. Pedestrian crossings make bird sounds, music plays over tannoys, recorded voices speak over one another, there’s a tinkle and bing-bong when a train is arriving and when it’s departing, when the doors open and when they close… you can even play a sound in the toilet to mask any embarrassing noises you may make!

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Day three: Koya-san to Nara

Come to prayer early

on Koya-san you may hear

one hand clapping there

The journey to Mount Koya from Osaka is pretty amazing. Using our pre-booked World Heritage Ticket we took the  Nankai line which dawdles away from the tightly packed city and begins the steep ascent up the mountain. The final vertiginous climb is courtesy of a cable car included in the ticket. In Koya-san we explored Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and stayed in the most welcoming gorgeous guesthouse where the boys tucked themselves away in capsules. We walked, after dark, through the amazing and vast Okuno-in cemetery to Kobo Daishi’s (founder of the first temple on Koya-san in 861) mausoleum following lantern-lit paths. We went again early in the morning for daily prayers at Kobo Daishi’s temple: we didn’t achieve enlightenment but we did find a pleasing sense of spirituality.  

Day four: Nara

Myriad platefuls

sparkling scented in your lap

breakfast Nara-style

 

No pagodas here

cries the woman who has eyes

but no map to see

In Nara we wandered the quaint back streets of Naramachi filled with traditional merchant houses, saw the black and bronze Buddhas encased in the Daibutsuden temple – the largest wooden structure in the world; and we answered questionnaires from just about every school child in Japan. Our favourite foods will be pored over in classrooms across the country! We all loved the many dishes that makeup a Japanese meal: the rice, the meat or fish, the pickles, the omelette and tofu and the miso soup – we won’t mention the miso soup in the lap mishap. In Nara, we got our okonomiyaki (delicious – although not cooked at our table), had lunch at a little café in the woods, met a clueless tourist, and had our first encounter with people dressing up in traditional costume to enjoy ‘a fun day out’. 

Day five & six: Nara to Kyoto

Ancient kimonos

hang on pre-fab walls wings spread

like huge butterflies

 

Sensation-drenched streets

demand all attention but

beware bikes behind

 

Through orange arches

to the mountain top to find

peace, truth and nice view

It rained while we were in Japan. A lot. However, dealing with rain is so normalised, it’s almost a pleasure to carry an umbrella. There are machines that dispense plastic covers for your brollies when you enter buildings and shops, and racks outside temples and restaurants to leave them in and collect them when you’re done. Above all, in Japan there are beautifully kept toilets everywhere;  most have heated seats and a funky control panel that includes an in-built bidet. Bliss. In Kyoto, we loved Nishiki Market full of (to our eye) weird and wonderful offerings, we met up with my niece and her friend who happened to be in Japan at the same time. We trailed through hundreds of orange shrine gates (and rain and cloud) on the pilgrimage loop of Fushimi Inari-Taisha – I pushed the extra footsteps to witness the ‘nice view’ which, although murky, was at least vaguely visible (the whole sky was muffled by the time we descended). And we managed to escape Kyoto on the fabled bullet train before Typhoon Lan arrived. The niece and her friend were not so lucky. But drowned their sorrows in beer and fluffy pancakes.

 Day seven: Kyoto to Hakone

Naked laughter wrapped

pink under trees and hot springs

soothes body and mind

 

Waiting for Fuji-san

the typhoon below the cloud

could go either way

Every holiday has a blue day. Our arrival in Hakone-en was ours. The cloud was low and the typhoon gusts building. We were deposited in a weird and rather bleak development focused around a hotel complex, The Prince Hakone, on Lake Ashinoko. Planned walks and excursions on the Komagatake ropeway for views of Mount Fuji were abandoned (were we even in the right place to see Fuji-san???)and we ate a rather sulky and dispiriting bowl of noodles (our only mediocre meal) wondering what we were doing  here. What a difference a day makes!

Day eight: Hakone to Tokyo 

As far as the eye

brimful to the horizon

Tokyo is aglow

 

Wide high-rise squat streets

bo peeps moist dumplings scenes of

Ghibli animé

 

Tax-free Uniqlo

and BIC Camera bliss-out but

watch for Oliver

We headed straight for Roppongi Hills for panoramic views of Tokyo skyline and sunset photos of Fuji-san . Perhaps the most surprising hit of the holiday was the Mori Art Gallery (entry included in the ticket to the tower view). We returned to the Shibuya district and committed sushi gluttony at Uobei Sushi: good-value , high-octane and your dishes are fired at you on mini bullet trains. The Ueno-Yanaka walk was a gorgeous nostalgic blend of market, cemetery, temples, shrines and galleries and a glimpse of how Tokyo once was. BIC Camera was impossible to pass for some members of our party and The Husband revelled in a whole floor of techno toilet seats! We saw cosplay stores and various costumed individuals, but the most eye-catching business around dressing up seemed to be in basement stores where young girls dressed and made-up to take social media photo posts – I think!

Day Eleven: Tokyo to Osaka

Row on row of fish

for sushi, fish for noodles

you taste very nice

 

The bullet departs

Tokyo for Osaka and

melodies come too

Before leaving Tokyo we had to visit Tsukiji fish market – another odyssey into food extremes – and seek out ikura don (salmon roe rice bowl). With samples being touted and attention-grabbing shouts, this felt like the most touristy market we visited – but was nonetheless thrilling. In Osaka, we met with my niece and friend for our final night. Our huge blowout consisted of teppanyaki in an izakaya (pub/eatery) Robatayaki Isaribi cooked in front of us and handed out on a huge wooden paddle – it was loud, fun and simply delicious. We could eat no more. Nevertheless we made a mad dash to grab the last three of Uncle Rikoro’s wibbly-wobbly cheesecakes

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 Day twelve: Osaka to Helsinki to Heathrow to Newcastle to Berwick-upon-Tweed 

Anchored in Finnair

view captured in oval frame

reflections released

Japan. So many things to digest (literally and figuratively) and an on-going desire to eat Japanese food. Forever. So many questions (including the need for a definitive answer about the face mask thing). A longing for a techno toilet, for a rigorous outdoor shoes, indoor shoes and toilet shoes policy everywhere. Also, a craving for one of those marvellous little van/cars that are so practical in such a space-hungry country. And so cute. 

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Eating & drinking in Berwick

Of course Berwick Literary Festival 2017 is going to be a gem of a festival. Take a look at the programme and you’ll see why. However, this post and my next one are dedicated to our starry historic host: the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

If you’ve not been to Berwick before, you’re in for a treat and if you have been, you’ll no doubt relive past pleasures as well as uncovering new delights.

Berwick has evocative and historic streets to wander, with cute and enticing independent shops as well as the usual suspects. There are also watering holes a-plenty to delight and surprise you.

This post offers a potted lowdown on a some venues where you can chew some fat (literally and figuratively) and sup a beverage or two between Festival sessions. My next post will highlight some short but enjoyable walks to enjoy as you make your way from venue to venue.

The cake display at the brand new quayside café, The Lookout

Cafés

  • You’ll no doubt stop by The Corner House on Church Street which is the Festival hub, home of an open fire and bookshelves to browse, purveyor of fine local coffee (Northern Edge), cakes (fully-leaded and gluten free) and light lunches. Show your ticket and get 50p off a hot drink.
  • Fantoosh on Marygate serves light lunches and lush cakes (it’s my local, I often grab ‘cakeouts’ to serve guests!), and offers dainty trinkets and gifts.
  • Just over the old bridge in Tweedmouth, you’ll find Riverside Café – good scones and what looked like a sensible breakfast (several tables seemed to be reserved). The café will also be providing refreshments at the Festival venue in Spittal, St Paul’s.
  • Mielle Patisserie is an artisan French-style café on West Street serving excellent cakes and light lunches.
  • A new addition: The Lookout on Berwick Quayside. The quiches and soups smelt lovely when I stopped by and a customer told me the coffee was ‘delicious’. It is a bijoux outlet with tables and chairs by the river and great views.

 

Fantoosh at the northern end of Marygate

Riverside Café, Tweedmouth

The Brown Bear

 

Cafés plus

  • Enjoy the view from The Maltings Kitchen over a scone and a cuppa or a fresh-cooked lunch and glass or two of wine – in The Maltings arts centre, Eastern Lane. Open for early evening meals on Thursdays and Fridays.
  • Foxtons on Hide Hill is a café-cum-wine bar which also offers lunch and evening meals using local produce – it has a loyal local following and can get busy.
  • Pier Red on Castlegate is a cake-serving café and gallery by day and a relaxed and elegant wine bar on Friday (cocktails from 5.30!) and Saturday nights. Cheese and meat picking platters are also available.
  • The YHA Granary Bistro in Dewar’s Lane offers a full range of drinks and family friendly meals in a relaxed atmosphere at excellent prices. You can get up to the lovely Granary Art Gallery from here for a quick look.
  • Upper West Street on West Street straddles this category and the one below. It’s a café/bistro serving a tasty range of lunches/evening meals and roasts on Sunday.

More substantial eateries

  • Gasparro’s on Bridge Street is the go-to for Italian staples.
  • Audela on Bridge Street serves reliably good lunch and evening meals using fresh local produce. At time of writing it is about to move to new premises further along the same street so do check first.
  • The Queens Head Hotel – lunches and evening meals which often make inventive use of lovely local produce. Venison is usually a good choice.
  • The Plough on the Hill is a new addition to the area. Four miles out of Berwick at Allerdean, this South African themed gastropub claims 2016 MasterChef Professionals’ winner Gary Maclean as its Executive Chef (allow £18-£20 for a return taxi to Berwick).
  • If curry’s your thing, Amran’s on Hide Hill is the place to go, it offers a great range of fine-tasting Indian food to suit the frailest and the most asbestos palates!

Drinkeries

  • I’ve already mentioned Pier Red and Foxtons – both popular and pleasing drinking haunts.
  • The Brown Bear on Hide Hill is a pub with a heart that serves a super pint and a grand pie and gravy. There is outside seating. It is also a Festival hub and is offering 5% off food and drink to those who show their Festival ticket.
  • The Curfew, tucked down an alley off Bridge Street, is Berwick’s super-popular micropub, serving fab craft beers – including those from excellent local brewery Bear Claw, local game and pork pies, scotch eggs and it’s the only place in Berwick to serve gouda and Dijon mustard – the ideal snack with beer. It has an outdoor patio.
  • The Barrels Ale House on Bridge Street is Berwick’s long-serving real-ale pub and live music venue. It’s a firm favourite with locals and visitors.

Outside the Curfew’s secret alleyway on Bridge Street

This brief meander through the eateries and drinkeries of Berwick is by no means exhaustive. I’ve enjoyed a substantial number of the places listed, others have been recommended by friends. However, just as my shelves are full of books that I have yet to open, the streets of Berwick are teeming with venues that I have yet to sample. If I’ve missed any of your favourites – or if, when you visit Berwick, you find your own hotspot – please do leave a comment below so that we can be sure to check it out!

For those of you who like to keep your step quota up, there are lots of lovely walks in and around the town. Tune into my next post for a few strolls that will wake you up and ensure you get maximum enjoyment form your visit to Berwick Literary Festival 2017.

Wandering in Berwick

Welcome to part two of my brief look at Berwick as the star of the Literary Festival (fitting, as a new film about Robert the Bruce, ‘Outlaw King’, is about to start filming in the town). My last post encouraged you to wet your whistle and whet your appetite in Berwick’s cafés and eating houses.

After all those stimulating Festival sessions, you’ll probably need some fresh air and the opportunity to wander and ponder. Berwick is the ideal place to do just that, enjoying views and wildlife along the way:

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Berwick to Spittal: Looking back at Berwick from outside Berwick Shellfish, Dock Road, Tweedmouth.

Wanders

  • The Walls: No visit to Berwick is complete without a walk round the historic Elizabethan walls. This 20- to 30-minute stroll offers vistas across the mouth of the Tweed, out to sea (with views to Lindisfarne and Bamburgh on a clear day) and takes in many of the town’s historic highlights including a great view along Marygate from atop Scot’s Gate – as seen and recorded by Lowry.
  • The Lighthouse: Pop down to Pier Road and take a blustery stride out to the lighthouse and back – it’s always possible you’ll see seals or dolphins – you’ll certainly enjoy views out to sea and across to Spittal.
  • The River: New Road is actually a footpath that runs inland from town along the Tweed to the base of the Stephenson railway bridge and beyond. Spot herons, seals and otters (if you’re lucky) and pop back up to town along one of the relatively steep paths leading through the beautiful Castle Vale parks.
  • The Bridges: If you’re pressed for time, why not simply walk over one historic bridge and return by the other? You’ll be rewarded with lovely views of the railway bridge along the river and, the other way, the coast.

  • Spittal: The historic seaside town of Spittal across the Tweed is home of St Paul’s, one of the Festival’s venues. When you pop over there to enjoy the programme, do take a moment to walk along Spittal Prom. It’s a classic Victorian promenade – a place to take in the air and savour the views out to sea and across to Berwick lighthouse. If you’re lucky you may see the pod of dolphins that frequents our coast.
  • Berwick to Spittal via Tweedmouth: The walk from Berwick to Spittal is an interesting and scenic one but do allow 20 to 30 minutes to get round to Festival venue St Paul’s. Turning left off the old bridge you’re in Tweedmouth and you’ll find Riverside Café. As you head on towards Dock Road, several lovely shops including the florist Buds and new additions Dockside Gallery and vintage store, From the Attic are worth a look. You could always stock up on shellfish or grab a seafood lunch at Berwick Shellfish on Dock Road before heading on round to Spittal.
  • The Boat Trip: If your sea legs fancy an outing and you have an hour or so between sessions, why not take a trip out from Berwick quayside? The ‘Border Rose’ makes regular trips up and down the River Tweed and out to sea to the end of October.

Bridge Street with second-hand bookshop, Slightly Foxed, foreground

Cookery & lifestyle shop: Cook+Live+Dream, Bridge Street

Gazing up West Street from Bridge Street

Grieve the stationers on the corner of Marygate & Church Street

  • The Town and Shops: Of course, you may just want to peruse a few shops and take in the general gorgeousness of Berwick. Such a stroll might include a jaunt north through Scot’s Gate and along Castlegate where you’ll find Pier Red (café/wine bar), and some independent outlets including a couple of lovely vintage shops and second hand bookshop Berrydin Books. Walking back through Scot’s Gate take the right turn just before Fantoosh (café/gifts) and drop down Bank Hill past The Loovre ice cream parlour, into Love Lane and on to Bridge Street. This street is packed with delightful independent shops and galleries such as Marehalm (gifts), organic outlet The Green Shop, and The Market Shop and second hand bookshop Slightly Foxed. At the far end of Bridge Street turn left up Hide Hill and poodle up the hill past gift shop Decorum to the Guildhall and Buttermarket. From the steps of the Guildhall take time to gaze along Marygate and the facades above the now predominantly chain store outlets for a hint of what the high street once was. Also, don’t be fooled, there are a number of pleasing independent shops here such as local craft collective Serendipity, the cornucopia that is Vintage upon Tweed and various cafés such as Deyn’s Deli (in the Rum Puncheon building). Another street well worth a look is the cobbled West Street which links Marygate and Bridge Street and is home to Upper West Street and charming independent shops including the jewellery outlet Bijoux and house of handmade artisan chocolates Cocoature.

There are many lovely walks around Berwick and, as you stroll, you’ll probably find some of the narrow back streets and footpaths too enticing to resist. Enjoy!

The Old Bridge

Berwick Lit Fest: How to get published

Northumberland-based writers Caroline Roberts (publisher: Harper Impulse, contemporary romance) and Stephanie Butland (publisher: Bonnier Zaffre, commercial literary) are doing a joint gig at the Berwick Literary Festival in October. They’ll be chatting to Newcastle blogger and creative writing tutor Victoria Watson about writing novels and getting them published. I caught up with these two marvellous and inspiring writers for a sneak preview of that discussion.

Caroline and Stephanie are in the fortunate position of being in-demand: their publishers are clamouring for more words and deadlines are a constant presence in their lives. But it wasn’t always like that. Their ambitions to write started when they were children – but from ambition to reality has been a combination of fate, hard work and sheer bloody mindedness.

‘Dad was a book wholesaler in Cornwall,’ says Caroline, ‘so we were surrounded by books. I was always writing stories and poems and making my own little scrapbooks. I went on to study English Literature at Durham University just because I loved reading so much!’

When her children were older Caroline considered how she might turn her love of writing – and the novels she was crafting – into more of a career. ‘I began looking for an agent or publisher. I lost count of the knockbacks after about 80 rejection letters!’ The breakthrough came when she connected with the Romantic Novelists Association (RNA) at a conference. ‘I realised I’d been going about things the wrong way. I’d been wading through the pages of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, picking publishers and agents that seemed right. But through chatting with the RNA and people I met at that conference, I realised that publishers or agents attending such conferences were the most likely to be looking for writers. Obviously, I couldn’t go to every conference but I could check out who was going to them.’

Caroline’s current novel. Her new title will be out before Christmas.

‘The childhood passion for making little books was me too!’ says Stephanie. ‘And I did an English degree. I kept writing bits and bobs but didn’t find my niche.’  A breast cancer diagnosis in 2008 was the turning point for Stephanie. ‘I started blogging about cancer as a pragmatic way of managing peoples’ desires to know how I was.’  Blogging morphed into more focused writing when Stephanie began to apply her specialist skills in Edward de Bono’s creative thinking techniques to her writing and to write about them.  ‘Things really took off with the blog and I decided to write a book.’  But where to go from there?

Fate intervened. ‘I saw an auction on Twitter. An agent was offering to read your manuscript. Everyone on Twitter got behind my bid: I think they felt you couldn’t really bid against cancer woman! And that’s how I got my agent, Ollie Munson. He read the first three chapters of How I said Bah! to cancer and wanted the rest of the manuscript… so I got on with writing it!’ A second book on life after cancer followed and then Stephanie decided to write the novel ‘I’d been thinking about all my life’.

Stephanie’s current novel. She is editing her next work.

Stephanie and Caroline agree that it is an amazing privilege to earn a living doing something you dreamt of doing when you were five.

‘But,’ says Caroline, ‘It is a job. Deadlines won’t wait. You can’t say to your publisher: it’s my daughter’s wedding this month (which it was) so can you just wait a bit.  Of course, passion and a good story are essential, but so’s the work ethic.’

Stephanie agrees: ‘No matter how inspired you are, no matter how brilliant your idea, you have to put the work in. And you have to keep going through the drafts until your work is the best it can be.’

Having the idea for the next book, even while they’re working on current drafts, is important to both writers. They’re also keen on ideas files and keep a stash of newspaper cuttings, pictures from magazines, notes and anecdotes, as well as jotting down thoughts and overheard conversations. As Stephanie says, ‘You pour everything into that first novel. But then there’s the next one to write!’

Stephanie and Caroline have helpful things to say about all sorts of aspects of writing and getting published including: working with editors (‘a huge relationship’); recurring themes in writing (Stephanie once panicked that she was writing the same book twice, she wasn’t: like most writers, she has ‘preoccupations’); and about agents (negotiating overseas sales and holding out for bigger deals are not always in a writer’s skills set). Finally, they both agree that the most important relationship for a writer is with readers, and they love meeting them: ‘without them we’d be pointless!’

I asked them for a word of advice for those who’d like to be doing what they are doing. Both women turned to other writers for motivation.

‘I have a sign by my desk that says: Don’t get it right, just get it written. Which is Dorothy Parker. It’s hugely helpful. You’ve got to get that first draft down, get the story written. Then you can edit and polish,’ says Caroline.

For Stephanie, it’s Kingsley Amis’ words of wisdom: the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

To apply the seat of your pants to the seat of a chair at their session at the Festival, follow the link below and book a place.

 

At the Festival: Caroline Roberts & Stephanie Butland will be chatting about writing and getting published with Newcastle-based blogger and writing tutor, Victoria Watson.

Where: Holy Trinity Parish Centre

When: Saturday 21st October, 10am

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):

 

 

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.

Coronation Park

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:

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