A story for the times

wal pic

We’re so lucky with the weather! At last year’s fête we had three inches of rain. Typical English summer. This the best year we’ve had for a long time.
I notice Mr Landowner hasn’t shown his face and I’m not surprised. Personally I blame him for all the unpleasantness. If he hadn’t sold that field, none of it would have happened. He’s got plenty of money, didn’t need to do anything with that pony paddock. Pure greed if you ask me.
We didn’t even know he had sold it until this caravan turned up in the field. With people in it. I don’t mean holidaymakers – it wasn’t that sort of caravan. More a sort of trailer. More the sort of thing where people live. A trailer and a clapped-out Mondeo estate, with no tax disc.
I’m not a busybody but we live right opposite the paddock so it was staring us in the face. I rang him to say, I’m sorry but do you realise there are people in your field? What you might call travellers? He said nothing to do with me – they’ve bought the land. It’s theirs.
They were a couple in their 30s, with two quite young children. She drove out with the children most days, came back with them later. The children didn’t go to our school so I don’t know where they went. I did ask the head and she said she believed the family had applied but ours is a tiny village primary – there was absolutely no room for them.
I don’t know what made me start the campaign. I’m not a campaigning sort of person, I’m just a mum, but I suppose I was the one person who couldn’t ignore the problem. When I opened my living room curtains every morning, there they were.
Some people were in favour of confronting the family but I believe in the law and fortunately we have a solicitor living in the village to advise us. It was quite simple. They had no right to live there. The field was a place for ponies, not people.
Really I had nothing personal against that family, they didn’t make a mess and I have nothing against travellers (though of course the name is a nonsense. They don’t travel. That’s the problem). No – our argument was with the district council. The council had never given planning permission for that field to be used for residential purposes and they had a duty to act.
Well, it took 18 months of campaigning before we had our voices heard. By that time the whole village, more or less, was behind us. We were so angry at being ignored. Decent people were furious at being dismissed by high and mighty councillors who know nothing about what it’s like to live in a little community like this.
We just wanted them to implement the law. That’s all we asked. Either planning permission existed or it didn’t. The man applied to make it a permanent site and have water put in but of course that was refused. So we told the council – you have to get them out. Lines have to be drawn.
The whole thing dragged on and on. I suspect the spineless councillors were hoping the family would leave of their own accord. One of the councillors actually went to talk to the family but she had no luck. They told her they had to be there because their children had a condition which meant they had to go for hospital treatment twice a week. But surely there must be hundreds of fields closer to the hospital than this one.
Finally we got the court order. The police rather overdid it with a raid at 4am but I think they secretly like that sort of thing, and the chap got his six months in prison for breaching the order. I thought surely the wife will give up now, but she clung on. I went round to Mr Landowner and pretty much told him to get his tractor out and tow the damn trailer off his paddock.
The next morning I opened the curtains – and it was gone. Jubilation! Then my phone started ringing. There was a dirty great trailer on the village green and what was I going to do about it?
The police refused to come.
So, for six months the trailer sat there on the green. We never saw the family. I think she took the children out very early in the morning and brought them back after dark. Nobody was nasty to them, in fact I told some boys off for throwing cans at the windows.
Then one morning it wasn’t there. People living round the green said they had heard noises in the night. We think as soon as he was released, the man must have got a lorry and come to fetch his family.
The landowner just took his paddock back. There had never been any proper paperwork, he said. Now it has ponies in it again.
The whole experience has really changed this village. To be honest, we were in decline before. A lot of the residents are elderly and don’t go out much. Parish council meetings rarely had more than four people and it’s not as if people actually go to church. Some young families had moved into the village but they were commuter types and didn’t really mix. And quite a few of us had been opposed to those new houses being built anyway.
But now the whole place is so much friendlier. Knocking on doors for the campaign, I met lovely people, including the newcomers. Those grim six months when we had to trudge past that trailer on the green every day brought us all together. Spirit of the Blitz, you might say.
And today at the fête you can see the results – everyone has turned out, everyone knows one another. There’s a real warmth. When it came down to the line, this village united as one. It’s been the best thing that ever happened to us.

Write what you don’t know


The Wright brothers flew, in order to learn how to fly


If you feel that you want to write – and it is very much a feeling –  you are bound to run into this question (or doubt): what am I going to write about?

The advice you get given is – write what you know.

You probably take this to mean: draw on your own experience, your own life. In the current literary climate, it often seems that authenticity is more important than storytelling.

Well, fine, if you’ve had the kind of life in which you were tragically orphaned when you lost your parents in an Arctic blizzard, you were raised by wolves, stowed away on a boat to Hawaii, got shipwrecked in the Pacific and spent three years on a coral reef, developed a cure for malaria, was rescued and won the Nobel prize for medicine…

Er. OK. None of us have had that life. For most of us – and the younger you are, the more likely this is to be true – if you could only write about what you had directly experienced, you would quickly run out of things to say.

So my motto is – write what you don’t know.

As human beings we are wonderfully well equipped to write about what we don’t know because we have three things: curiosity, imagination, and the internet.

Writing should be a voyage of discovery. Don’t worry about writing what you know – write in order to know.

You don’t have to know it all when you begin whatever you’re writing. You don’t have to have it all mapped out. You just have to be courageous, start, and the ideas will grow. Little blobs, amoeba ideas, floating around in your subconscious will meet, join, split and multiply. Your story will get bigger, take shape, change shape. You have to be prepared for it not ending up the story you thought it was going to be.

The more you write, the more you gain confidence that the words and ideas will come, and that, with persistence and experience, you will be able to shape them into something that is artistically satisfying.

If you keep a journal or a diary, purely for yourself, you probably already know this. Writing down your feelings helps you know them and know yourself better. A few months on, if you look back at a diary entry it can seem meaningless, self-indulgent or downright embarrassing – but it doesn’t matter. Writing that page on that day was what mattered. It took you through a process and propelled you forward.

I was a journalist for many years and I love digging for facts, doing research and seeing what comes of it. Bad journalism is when you decide what the story is (or your editor tells you what the story is) and you go looking for the facts to fit it. Good journalism is when you do the research first, talk to people and listen to their answers – and then let the story take shape out of that. That’s the way to come up with something genuinely new.

I love this quote by Gloria Steinem, from (I think) her new autobiography My Life On The Road (Oneworld). She says:

“If you want to be a writer, write to express rather than persuade. Writing to persuade is a worthy endeavour, but it doesn’t allow you to admit uncertainty. And it’s actually fun to learn, which is why we often laugh if we have a new thought or idea. It’s that ‘aha’ moment when you suddenly realise two familiar things come together to present a new possibility. As a journalist I felt as if I was being paid to learn. It made me feel free.”



Voices From a Time of War

“We heard from those who had crossed that sea. One was a ship’s pilot who brought 88 refugees in a boat that usually takes 15 passengers. A fishing boat for 10 men brought 56 passengers. One refugee ship foundered in the channel, but nearly all were rescued.”

Syrian refugees fleeing to Lesbos? No, Belgians fleeing the devastation of their country in 1914.

In 1914 these refugees were welcomed in England. Towns mobilised to house, clothe and feed them. Even small villages took in a family.

The treatment of refugees is one of the themes in a show I’m putting on in Hertford on Saturday 21 November.


From a Time of War

Saturday 21st November 2015

St Andrew’s Church, Hertford

7.30pm – 9.30pm (doors open 7pm)

An evening of readings and songs, expressing the dreams and reality, hopes, fears and frustrations of those who experienced the First World War, at home in Hertford and at the Front.

WW1 themed raffle
Interval refreshments

Tickets: £10

Tickets from St Andrew’s: 01992 504373

or from Hertford Tourist Office: 01992 584322

Glimpses of First Light

Some photos from the rehearsals, most taken by the multi-talented Vickie Holden:

Three of our actors - (L to R) Julia Hallawell, Vickie Holden (in costume!), Charlie Abbott

Three of our actors – (L to R) Julia Hallawell, Vickie Holden (in costume!), Charlie Abbott

Director Trevor Georges and Catherine Forrester

Director Trevor Georges and Catherine Forrester

The last supper

The last supper

John Holden White, playing Yesh, rehearsing with the cross

John Holden White, playing Yesh, rehearsing with the cross

Late in the evening

Late in the evening

Julia Hallawell as Mary

Julia Hallawell as Mary

All on stage for the final scene (including me, but I was only reading in for an absent actor!)

All on stage for the final scene (including me, but I was only reading in for an absent actor!)

New ‘Introduction to Playwriting’ Course starting in May

I’m running an eight week ‘Introduction to Playwriting’ course in Hertford, starting Monday 11 May.

For details of the dates and what the course will cover, click on the Playwriting Classes page above.

It will be at the lovely Leaf Bookshop and Cafe, Old Cross, Hertford.  twitter: @leafcafe_uk

Follow me on Twitter: @pinsnfeathers

First Light

Poster b

My new play – First Light: a Passion Play for Hertford – had its production at Easter, 3 and 4 April 2015, in St Andrew’s Church Hertford.

The director, Trevor Michael Georges, and a wonderful cast of professional and non-professional actors, made it a fantastic show and the audience response was enthusiastic and moving.

Here’s an extract from the play.

Here’s a clip of the interview I gave to BBC Three Counties Radio about the production: you can listen by following this link

Why I wrote a Passion Play

First Light is not a play I ever thought I would write. Having been subjected to the full blast of a Roman Catholic education as a child and teenager, and having found as I grew older that the more I read and questioned, the more I disagreed with the conventional teachings, I had no wish to write about Christianity.
“I’m not getting involved with religion. It’s a minefield!” as Pontius Pilate says in First Light (one of the many lines I enjoyed writing).
But I have always been interested in the longstanding English tradition of local mystery plays, which are among the gems of the English language. Their lasting power was fully demonstrated in Tony Harrison’s marvellous versions of The Mysteries, produced by the National Theatre in the 1980s. I was lucky enough to see one of these at the Lyceum – it was a fantastic theatrical experience and I have an abiding memory of Brian Glover delivering the words of God in a Yorkshire accent from the top of a forklift truck (yes indeed…).
So when Alan Stewart, the vicar of St Andrew’s Hertford and St Mary’s Hertingfordbury, said the idea had arisen of doing a mystery play in the town, I was intrigued. It chimed with my enthusiasm for community plays, having just written and produced The Last Witch. Alan is a far from traditional vicar and he did not envisage a traditional play – when he wondered whether it would be possible to write a contemporary treatment of the Gospel stories, I saw a challenge.
The medieval mystery plays were a full cycle of dramas, covering typically the creation, the nativity, the passion (ie the events of Easter: Christ’s trial, crucifixion and resurrection) and doomsday, or the last judgment. We decided to focus on the passion and put it on as an Easter event.
The great thing about the old mystery plays is what they tell us about medieval life, rather than what they say about the Bible stories. The writers used the language and situations of their day, so in a nativity play, there is a sheep-stealer among the shepherds. In Tony Harrison’s text, Mak the sheep-stealer complains that he has too many kids at home, his wife sits around drinking and he is skint: “I ate not a needle this month and more.” When the shepherds fall asleep, he sees his chance: “A fat sheep, I dare say, A good fleece, dare I lay, Pay back when I may, But this I will borrow…”
So I see First Light as being in a long English tradition of mucking about with the Bible stories.
First Light treats Jesus and his friends (the disciples) as people living here and now. They are not saints: they are caught in desperate events and they do not know how things will turn out. Jesus – I called him Yesh in the play, partly to reduce the preconceptions about him and partly so that it wouldn’t sound as if the actors were swearing all the time – is not filled with divine foreknowledge and acceptance of his destiny. He is gripped with doubt and fear, but also has courage.
They are not exactly in 21st century England, but rather in an occupied country, which is crucial to the story. I was not drawing any direct parallels here with the political situation in any other countries, but I did want to explore what it would feel like to live under occupation, to feel that sense of powerlessness. The play includes monologues from characters who are very much living in 21st century England and who have been rendered powerless in various ways – by redundancy, or poverty or the constraints of their working life. The woman who has to resort to a food bank to feed her children, and the jobcentre employee who has stopped her benefits are both trapped in the same punitive system.
I’m not a churchgoer and First Light is not an evangelical play, in the sense that it doesn’t set out to convince an audience of specific Christian beliefs. So what is the point of putting on a Passion Play in today’s secular society, if you don’t simply want to make an existing church congregation feel more holy?
I think that even though we are, rightly, a secular society, the Easter story of death and resurrection is a founding myth of Western culture and is worth examining. Everyone is happy to celebrate Christmas and talk about the ‘spirit of Christmas’, even if they are in no way religious. But we don’t talk about the ‘spirit of Easter’. It is a much more unsettling and challenging story, involving a horrific judicial murder, followed by an event that is frankly supernatural – a bodily rising from the dead. What are we to make if it? Much easier to stick to chocolate eggs.
I personally don’t think that the events (albeit fairly detailed) in the Gospels are unedited historical truth. However, I do think there is truth to be found in the Easter story and that is what I tried to portray in First Light. What might death and resurrection mean for us? I’m not talking about an afterlife, but in the life we’re living now. We all encounter death – not just actual bereavement but the spiritual deaths of rejection, failure, depression, loss. Our society dementedly tries to sort people into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and when you are deemed a loser, it is hard to find the resources to strengthen yourself, to value your life again. You need resurrection, rebirth, and my interpretation of the Easter myth is that the possibility of this resurrection is always there. You can view that in religious terms or you can simply look out of your window at this time of year, when spring brings everything back to life.

Seeing It Through



Seeing It Through 15 November

Some images from the show, ‘Seeing It Through’ which was performed at Hertford Theatre Studio on 15 November 2014. Our small cast of five – Toni Brooks, Catherine Forrester (seen in the photo playing young Ware soldier Claud Sweeney in the trenches), Rob Madeley and Steve Scales, plus Director Richard Syms who also took the narrator role of the Editor of the Mercury, gave fantastic performances which were very well received by the audiences. (In the pic, left to right: Steve, Toni, Catherine, Rob).

Now we hope we can put it on again!

The story of how ordinary people lived through the First World War is worth telling. It is a powerful counter to the glorification and mythologising of war, while also revealing much about the roots of how we live our lives now.