The (Shy And) Retiring Type…

A few days ago, I made the decision to retire from my present job.

It is something I have been brooding over for some while, and having a little time and space to think while I walked on Dartmoor last week enabled me to finally accept a decision I had really come to some time before.

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For a long time I have instructed groups in an outdoor environment, in activities such as climbing, canoeing, navigation and team building. As I have got older, though, I have naturally found these activities both physically and mentally more demanding. After all, when you are responsible for people’s safety as well as teaching them skills, there is an added pressure on everything you do.

A number of other stresses in my life over the last year or so have not helped, especially as they are still ongoing.

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So as well as a sense of regret, there is certainly a great feeling of relief. Regret, because I have had a huge amount of both pleasure and satisfaction from this work, which has carried me through those times when I felt it was becoming all too much, but relief that now it is time to call it a day, as I have reached the point where I know I cannot carry on for much longer.

I love being in an outdoor environment. It is why I choose to go to hills and woods and mountains rather than towns and cities, and this was instrumental in my deciding to teach these activities in the first place. But the obverse of that coin is that so often I am unable to really enjoy being there, since I am entirely focused on my group and the activities – which is how it should be, of course.

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One thing I shall look forward to, then, is being able to enjoy that environment every time I am there, without constantly having to check everyone is safe, or ensuring the activities are taking place as they should be.

While I intend to bring a greater focus to my writing, and also to my painting, I will also have to find something to bring in a little money for the next couple of years until I reach the state retirement age. I’ve no idea what that will be, yet.

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Essentially, I just feel burnt out. It is a very intensive job, in the way that care work, for example, can be, and I know it is the right time to go. Otherwise, there is the risk I will begin to run sessions that no one will want to take part in.

And that’s not the way I want it to finish. Far better that people should ask why I am going, than they should ask why I have not gone before now.

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Sojourn on Dartmoor

I’ve been on Dartmoor. My goodness, it was nice to get away.

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Dartmoor is frequently misty and moody, as it was on one walk.

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Yet it can often be fine and sunny. But whichever it is, I always think of it as unfailingly beautiful.

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The sheep get everywhere, including on the top of old spoil heaps from derelict mine workings.

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Hooten Wheals is one such disused mine, with a plethora of remnants of old buildings and machine structures still extant. I believe the circular structures are the remains of buddles, circular shallow settling tanks used to extract the minerals from the rock.

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There are also plentiful remains of farms, houses and all sorts of settlements, from prehistoric times through to the recent past. These buildings at Swincombe are probably not particularly old.

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Old stone crosses are found all over Dartmoor. Their uses include marking the boundaries of the influences of various abbeys and waymarking paths. This one (and the one in the distance) are on Ter Hill.

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And because Dartmoor is so open, you get skies.

Wonderful skies.

From Genesis to Tribulation (and Beyond!)

Making Friends with the Crocodile was born early one morning – around 4 a.m. – in a Stream of Consciousness that demanded I get up out of bed and write page after page of notes on scenes and characters and the plot development.

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The whole novel was written in much the same way. Generally, I write as a pantser rather than a plotter – I’m terrible at planning out my writing, preferring instead to dive in and see where it takes me. But Making Friends with the Crocodile was written linearly, and other than the grammar and general tidying up, very little was changed in edit.

The book I’m working on now, though, had a far more troubled genesis. Maybe everyone has this problem with the second novel, unless it’s the second one of a planned series. I knew I wanted to write another novel that ‘said’ something, and that I wanted to set this one in India, too, but after that I went blank. I had decided to write about the English in India, or at least one of them, but had no plot.

We went on holiday, and for much of the week we were away I took a few hours out each day to work on the plot, filling my notebook with ideas and characters and working up a central theme, and once we were home again I started work on the novel.

But as I wrote, I found I was dissatisfied with the central plot. It seemed rather unlikely and, frankly, not that interesting. I didn’t even like my working title (I wonder how important that can be, psychologically?) I changed a few bits around, and turned the sub-plot into the main theme, and carried on. Eventually, I realised that I had lost interest in the whole project, despite the thirty thousand-odd words I’d written, and returned to an earlier, shelved project.

I worked on that for a while, but every now and again had ideas for the one I’d just abandoned, duly noted them down, and carried on. About three months later, I spent an afternoon going through notes and suddenly had an idea for two new sub-plots and a couple of new characters. These I liked Very Much Indeed.

I returned to the Abandoned Novel With the Uninteresting Working Title and got stuck in. I even had a new working title: A Good Place. It now stands at around seventy five thousand words, and the first draft is almost complete. There are a few gaps to fill in, but otherwise it is almost ready to put aside for a few months ready to edit.

So exciting!

Starless and Bible-Black – Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

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After my previous post, it seems entirely apt to post a review, today.

Writers rely upon reviews to sell books. To spread the word. And I am conscious how bad I am at leaving reviews – mainly because I’m not very good at writing them. But I Shall Try To Do Better!

To start with, this is the review I left on Goodreads some time ago for a book that is already very well-known.

This book begins, then, full of rich, playful language as it sets the scene and gradually introduces the players.

To begin at the beginning:

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’ -and -rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfounded town are sleeping now.

I have heard poems by Dylan Thomas read by Richard Burton – the actor, not the nineteenth century explorer – and his warm, mesmeric, lilting tone suits the poetry like no other voice I could imagine. Now, I cannot read any Dylan Thomas without hearing it read in his voice.

(I want my work read like that. There is a man I know with a wonderful voice; mellifluous and rich and deep, like Burgundy and dark chocolate. Not Welsh, but very English, who I shall attempt to trick into reading one of my poems or short stories out loud, one day.)

So, to the poem, or play, if you will, for it is a play, first and foremost, told as a prose poem. The play is full of wonderful voices, the voices of a plethora of small-town characters; all of them realistically drawn with their dreams and vices and foibles, and depicted with great humour, but also with sadness. Sadness, for there is resolution for most of the characters, and for some their dreams come true, but others are disappointed.

All of these characters love and hate and desire each other, they reminisce, they have ambitions. In this play, they all have their day. In this place, each one gets to tell their story, or have it told for them.

From the very beginning, the language is rich like double cream and brandy butter; too rich, perhaps, for certainly by the time I had begun to near the end it had become too much. I found myself yearning for more plain, simple language. I wanted a few bread and water phrases.

But the words invite you to savour them slowly – in fact, they demand it. Perhaps the secret, then, is to read this little and often; to dip into it and immerse yourself in the language.

I really wanted to give this masterpiece four and half stars out of five, but without that option, I give it five, although with the caveat above.

Who’s That Trip-Trapping Over My Bridge?

It’s a troll!

Okay, I know. The troll was under the bridge and it was the Billy Goats Gruff doing the trip-trapping.

Whatever.

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Where was I last post? Oh yes, poor quality self-published books.

A little while ago a blogging friend of mine reviewed a self-published book on Goodreads, and gave it three stars out of five, on the basis that the book was full of editing errors. For this, she was then trolled by another member – not the author in question, but I suspect she was a friend of the author, although it is not impossible it was just someone out to cause trouble.

This troll was furious that anyone would mark down a book for being poorly edited and poorly formatted. She then went on to personally attack the reviewer. I don’t know the outcome, but I certainly hope a complaint was made and the troll blocked from Goodreads.

I wonder, have we really got to a point where it is considered perfectly acceptable to publish something of poor quality and no one is allowed to point out this fact? Is this another consequence of the self-publishing phenomenon coupled with many people’s unwillingness to tolerate any views other than their own?

Self Publishing – a Blessing or a Curse?

That depends on who you talk to, of course.

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The self publishing boom has given rise to the publication of millions of new books, the majority of which would never have been published traditionally because they would be either deemed to be of insufficient interest to return a profit to the publishers or because they were, frankly, just too terrible to see the light of day.

How good a book is can be very subjective in many ways, but certain rules must apply.

If you buy a traditionally published book, you may be reasonably certain that it has been edited and proof-read to a high standard, the printing and layout of the book is of good quality, and the actual contents – plot, dialogue, character development et al – are sufficiently well written as to repay your reading time.

There are no such guarantees with a self published book.

As a member of several Goodreads groups, I receive regular emails which consist largely of other members promoting their books. These promotions frequently consist of a synopsis of the book, extracts, and links. All well and good, but the number of extracts that are poorly written, unedited (it would seem), with poor print layout, and the number of synopses that are equally poor, is very high indeed. Probably the majority, unfortunately. And should I follow the link to the ebook sales site and read a longer extract, frequently this, too, is filled with more of the same errors.

As far as the plot and dialogue and all that goes with that is concerned, I admit that may be partly down to taste. I have no doubt that some poorly written and poorly plotted books still give great pleasure to many readers, and good luck to them. There are certainly examples of the same amongst traditionally published books. And styles go in and out of fashion, anyway.

What I do take issue with, though, is poor, sloppy editing.

Most people cannot afford to pay for professional editing – I certainly can’t. I understand that. It means doing the job yourself, but taking infinite time and care over it. Check it over and over again until it is the best you can do. The odd mistake will slip through, but that happens even in a professionally edited work. Persuade others to act as beta readers for you. They may not be professionals, but they will spot things you don’t. You are too close to the work, anyway.

If you can’t do that, don’t publish the book.

Let’s take layout first. It only takes a careful look at half a dozen professionally published books to get a good idea of what that layout should look like. And you can buy books that supply more detail. If you are serious about your book, you should do that.

Spellcheck is a useful tool, but only if it is used properly. It recognises a correctly spelled word in its database, but has nothing to say about the suitability of its use. I do find it particularly irritating to come across passages where the completely wrong word has been used, no doubt because Spellcheck flagged it up as the correct spelling. Common examples are groyne / groin, sheer / shear, alter / altar etc. etc. etc.

Grammar is the biggest minefield, though. We all get that wrong at times, even the best of us. But at least avoid the biggest howlers – the so-called grocer’s apostrophe, for example. Put the manuscript through a program such as Grammarly, which is free to download, to pick up the majority of the errors.

Another phenomenon I have seen recently is a 4,000 word story published on Amazon as a ‘Novella’. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with selling a story that length, but anything that comes in at 4,000 words is a short story. And quite a short one at that. To describe it as a novella, no matter what price it is being sold at is, quite frankly, a bit of a bloody cheek.

Please don’t do that.

And I’m sure many other readers have their own pet peeves.

 

Sound The Retreat!

My reader will probably not be too surprised to learn that I have been on retreats a couple of times.

After all, someone who gripes about the rush and noise and pressures of the modern world, and who has anxiety issues, tends to spend quite a lot of time yearning for silence and solitude. Because there are, quite frankly, times when everything just gets too much to cope with.

Obviously there are many ways this might be achieved; perhaps I could commit a serious crime and then misbehave in gaol – that would probably lead to a good long spell in solitary, although I can think of several reasons why this might not be the ideal solution.

I could lock myself in a room and refuse to come out – from experience, though, that just leads to unpleasantness and tears. It worked tolerably well when I was a child, but as an adult I can see why it might not look so good.

Whenever I get the opportunity I go for a long walk. Unfortunately, if it is near my home I tend to be surrounded by dogs and dog walkers – not that’s there’s anything wrong with them, I hasten to add, but it’s hardly peaceful. There are several dog owners around here whose voices can not only be heard several counties away because of the sheer volume, but can also smash windows by pitch alone. And I soon get back to roads and so-called civilisation, no matter which route I take.

Then there are lots of other walkers bellowing into mobile phones: ‘Yes, it’s lovely and peaceful out here! Now, let me just yell a few personal and private details at you and anyone else within earshot! What? Yes, I’m still a complete tosser! Why do you ask?’

Going further afield takes more time, and that’s no good if I need a quick fix of silence, so generally I’m stuck with the dog walkers and the tossers.

So, retreats. Other than the meaning of legging it from a superior military force, a retreat is defined as withdrawing to a quiet / peaceful place. There is also the implication of it being a place to indulge in contemplation.

Yes, that’s exactly what I had in mind. Don’t mind if I do.

My first retreat was at an abbey not terribly far from where I live. Although I am not a Christian, I enjoyed a short week of taking quiet walks in the grounds of the abbey and the countryside beyond, reading, rising early and taking a silent breakfast with the monks, and even attending one of the services each day.

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Some of the time I spent painting watercolours which I have long lost. Since at least one was of foxgloves, here’s a photo of some just so you can imagine how incredibly good the paintings were!

The other retreat was in the North of England, and consisted of a week-long period of meditation with a Buddhist group. This was very hard work, but I did finish the week feeling refreshed.

Of course, it is perfectly possible to organise one’s own retreat by finding somewhere quiet and secluded and staying put for a week or however long one fancies (a year, perhaps?).

Perhaps I should do that soon.

South Downs Way 4 – Amberley to Winchester

Our room looked out over what is called Amberley Swamp. We slept with the curtains open, and were woken by the pre-dawn light, although the bluey greys and purples soon gave way to greens and yellows in the low morning sun.

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But once the sun was up, the mist contrived to linger for a while longer and the cool, still air was filled with the cries of unseen birds. Later, as we left Amberley and approached the first steep climb of the day, we saw a yellowhammer on a gatepost singing its traditional ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ song.

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I tried to get a photo of the little perisher, though I wasn’t very successful.

This is all about the sheep, by the way.

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Baaa!

The South Downs landscape as we know it today was largely formed by sheep. I don’t mean that large flocks of sheep sat down and planned it as a kind of Rural Development Project, but that for certainly more than a thousand years it was grazed by huge flocks of sheep whose dung helped improve the soil so that in places crops might also be grown. This led to the felling of virtually all tree cover (originally, the Downs were forested, as was most of Britain) and the establishment of the large grassland areas we associate with the Downs today.

Fans of Terry Pratchett will recall that the Mistress Weatherwax series was set in a part of Discworld that bears a large resemblance to the Chalk Downs of England. No coincidence, I am sure, as he hailed from the Wiltshire area which includes, of course, Salisbury Plain. When I read these books, I get the sense that in describing that area, he is writing of an area that is dear and special to him. There are rolling Downs and sheep and a witch who is also a shepherd living in a shepherd’s hut, which is a caravan but not as we know it, Jim.

Shepherd’s huts were the most basic of boxes on wheels, usually with a tiny shuttered glass-less window, a bunk bed, a small wood burning stove and pretty well not much else. The  hut would be up on the downs (there’s an oxymoron that’s not an oxymoron for you) for most of the year, and the shepherd would live up there looking after the sheep. Probably no chance of a day off or a night out, month after month. It was a tough life, and not at all romantic. Even getting hold of water would be a problem, with the general lack of any water at all on top of the Downs, unless they parked up near a dew pond (see part 1).

There used to be one in the grounds of the Visitor’s Centre at Exceat, near Seaford, although I’ve no idea if it is still there now.

A number of companies now make shepherd’s huts for trendy well-off folks with a bit of garden to shove them in, and charge quite a lot of money, and they are frequently much larger than the originals would have been, and fitted out in some luxury – a far cry from how they would have been when built on the farm for the shepherd. Perhaps they need a new name for them: Mock Shepherd’s Huts, perhaps.

A quick look at what Professor Google comes up with when you enter ‘Shepherd’s hut’ into the search engine reveals an overabundance of words like ‘luxurious’, ‘style’ and ‘cool’ and ‘glamping’…you get the idea.

In the first post of this series, I mentioned I had once intended to start an outdoor adventure company, which never happened. Had I done so, it was to be called Red Kite Outdoors. I mention this, as we saw a number of Red Kites towards the end of our walk. Which gives me an opportunity to include a second poor quality photo of a bird in this post.

There, don’t say I never do anything for you.

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A Red Kite – just out of range of my camera.

As planned, on the last day we reached Winchester.

We cheated, incidentally. We were so tired after the penultimate day, we walked an easy path for 3 miles or so into the village / small town of West Meon, went for coffee there, had lunch, and then took the bus to Winchester.

We don’t care!

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An easy path

After finding our AirBnb guesthouse (pretty damn good, actually) we went and had a look in the cathedral. It is pretty close to the end (or start) point of the walk, after all.

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An arty farty reflective light shot of the cathedral that shows nothing of the cathedral

We stood around in the Cathedral as the choir went through their practice before Evensong. I do not know what piece they were singing, but it was a beautiful, haunting, ethereal piece. It was tempting to stay for Evensong, just to hear them sing again, but we had an appointment with a celebratory supper which I was reluctant to delay.

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What better way to celebrate our arrival in Winchester?