Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Travel Blog

A small crack, only just audible above the pec pec pec of the outboard, sent the two guys dozing on the narrow benches at the front scrabbling on the mucky floor of the boat, using their mobile phones to pierce the thick dark. A grunt and a splash and the small fish who had made an unfortunate leap in the dark, was pitched back into the river. These guys, employees and freelancers of the Amazon Rainforest Lodge are relatively affluent: I sense their forefathers would have seen it as a gift from the river gods.

We set out in total dark from the lodge at 4.00 am, after a night of spectacular crashing thunder, rain and an amazing light show, but the river was still dangerously low, so the trip that would have taken about an hour in the metal speedboat with its big butch 70 HP Johnson outboard had to be done in a little wooden pec pec. These boats, mostly open, but a few with palm thatched roofs, have small and highly manouverable outboards with very long prop-shafts like cake whisks. They form most of the traffic on the Amazon and its tributaries and you see families pec pec pec-ing their way down river in the early morning to sell their goods in Iquitos: charcoal and bananas forming the main cargo, with boats loaded to an inch or two of freeboard. Often the whole family will go, to enjoy the day out and mix business with pleasure. Kids wave at passing boats and grannies shelter under multi coloured umbrellas and makeshift shelters: odd mixture of traditional and modern as palm leaves vie with plastic. (Plastic water bottles act as net floats and bouys, warning of sand bars and sunken logs. Little is wasted)

Our particular pec pec of this morning was covered with blue plastic which dripped condensation on us, but was a bit special, as the driver was a professional. Our personal guide, Jimy, stood in the prow with a flashlight, playing it across the surface of the water from one bank to the other, trying to pick out the standing ripples that warn of a sand bar just beneath the surface. We could occasionally make out a night bird´s call above the engine, and once or twice Jimy caught a white bird in his torch beam. It was an eery and tense experience, and I was thinking of it as a bit of jolly adventure, in a sort of Boys´ Own kind of way,with a nice feeling of peril, without any real danger, when we hit a sand bar hard, and the boat slewed round and tilted; the freeboard on my side reduced to about 2 centimetres. Then I really was frightened: were we going to be tipped into the muddy and probably freezing cold water? Were the piranas we failed to catch the day before waiting to turn the tables on us?

There was much rocking of the boat, plenty of prodding and shoving and lots of noise from the labouring cake whisk, as the driver put it into reverse, stirred  the muddy river up even more, and finally got us afloat again. Then I felt foolish- there really was nothing to worry about- these guys live on the river, and getting stuck on a sand bank was certanly no worse than us getting a flat, or needing a jump start.

Later that day, we emerged from the Rio Momon- "our" tributary onto the mighty Amazon itself, where our heroes of the dark night turned into our personal David Attenboroughs, and whistled up a couple of pink river dolphins for us.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Smell of Chlorine

I have started writing my book! It is to be a memoir of my old headmistress and my East End childhood and education. This may or may not be included, but I will also post it on the site I set up for gathering and sharing stories about my school years, where I have written about one or two other memories.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the sense of smell is more evocative than the other four put together, so it is no wonder that, as I get older, I am continually hooked back into my distant past. It is also universally acknowledged that as one gets older, one’s long term memory increases, as the short term one decreases. In fact it’s a standard senility test-“what did you have for lunch yesterday dear?.... Can’t remember? Never mind we’ve got some nice pictures here for you to match”  Well- can you remember what you had for lunch yesterday, or can’t you be bothered, in a busy life, to even think about it? Still, senile or not, I still have senior moments, and they seem to be coming along ever more frequently, like the times when the past clutches me by the nose and pulls me back….

And I am there, in the huge municipal swimming pool in East Ham: shouts and echoes, slimy tiles, weird wire baskets for your clothes, communal changing- oh the teenage blushes when your boobs were too small and your bottom too big! And what has brought me here? A whiff of chlorine when I cleaned the sink. It’s no use me peeling off my Marigolds and trying to chase away the memories with the smell of fresh coffee; I am there. Why today? It’s not as if cleaning the sink is that rare ( I may not do it every day, but I do do it) then I realise- it’s because I burnt the toast this morning, and the smell still lingers, and combines with the chlorine to make that unique smell which snares me and draws me into the past, bringing with it sounds and sights and the feeling of being a spotty, insignificant kid.

It wasn’t just the chlorine, eye stinging and almost visible- us east end kids used to pee in the water you know-, it was the toast- mountains of thin white sliced bread- (do I really remember that a loaf of it was eight pence three farthings when I used to be sent to buy it at the corner shop, in the days when there was a corner shop?) Big ladies with comfortable bingo wings made these mountains of toast and scraped cheap margarine and fish paste onto them.

-‘Ere, you got any ends missis?
(Ends were cheaper)
-There y’are love
-Put a bit a paste on it Missis
-Oh go on wiv yer then

On flush days when we didn’t have to rely on the good will of the ladies we would stuff ourselves with five or six dripping smelly slices. No slot machines full of choc bars and crisps, just bingo wings, white tiles, crumbs and chlorine. No health and safety inspectors to tell the ladies they couldn’t slap on the marge by hand and pass the greasy things straight into our chlorine scented hands.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

I hope you're teaching Quality

I have discussed genre elsewhere, and have always said, what matters is quality. Now how do you define Quality?

Sarah … came trotting by with her watering pot between those two doors, going from the corridor to her office, and she said, "I hope you are teaching Quality to your students.". ..
Quality . . . you know what it is, yet you don't know what it is. But that's self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There's nothing to talk about. But if you can't say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn't exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others . . . but what's the betterness? . . . So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?
Robert M Persig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I now have an easy definition which works for me as far as books are concerned- do I want to put it on my bookshelf beside Dickens, Austen and Gaskell? I am at the age where I can no longer be bothered with stuff I don't want- ornaments, kitchen gadgets, saggy socks- and books that I am unlikely to read again. They don't get as far as a shelf: an unwanted book moves straight from the bedside table to the hall-stand. In other words, it's on its way out!

Our reading group, attached to our local Library, has just finished reading My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult. Now, although I read it quickly and with enjoyment ("It slipped down easily" said our librarian) it will not have a permanent place on my shelves. It's well written, it's a bit of a page-turner, the characters are interesting. So why? The twist at the end is satisfying in terms of story telling- in other words it's unforeseen and quite clever- but morally, it's a complete cop-out. I get the feeling that JP has engineered it to twist our heart strings! The issues raised by the book however, are important and suck any reader in- designer babies, sibling rivalry and love, possessive and controlling mothers, and filial love. It engendered lively and long discussion. One reader summed it up as "A pot-boiler about serious issues".

Coincidentally, I have just finished reading Sister by Rosamund Lupton, which shares some of the same themes- although not the central one. I found this book more emotionally engaging and true while still wanting to find out what happens next. And yes, I will read it again- it's earned its place!

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Of reading and writers- Steinbeck and Saki

It’s up to us, as parents, grandparents and teachers, to read to kids things they can’t or wouldn’t read by themselves, but are capable of understanding when they hear it read by a good reader.

My philosophy was strongly in favour of this when I was a teacher, seeing no reason why an inability to read should deprive kids in my lowest achieving groups of good stories. Thus I always read Of Mice and Men to them. The best, most perfect book ever written.

This Easter, with all my family staying, I read my eight year old grandson Saki's TheLumber Room, in which the protagonist Nicholas, who is himself not much more than Ted’s age, and of a similar bright, enquiring and somewhat Machiavellian mind, outwits a preposterous and ponderous Edwardian lady in whose house he is staying with his cousins.

I have always loved the word insouciant, and Nicholas is the epitome of insouciance- insisting that he was right all along, when he claimed there was a frog in his “wholesome bread and milk” Of course there was- he had put it there!

Ted and the other children listened with pleasure to this tale of a child triumphing over an adult, but I doubt if they would have been able to read the following passage without stumbling over the construction and even some of the vocabulary.

“You are not to go into the gooseberry garden”, said the aunt, changing the subject.
“Why not?” demanded Nicholas.
“Because you are in disgrace”, said the aunt loftily.
Nicholas did not admit the flawlessness of the reasoning; he felt perfectly capable of being in disgrace and in a gooseberry garden at the same moment.

Stop Press- a new review of Moon in Leo by Carla Nayland

Carla Nayland Historical Fiction: Moon In Leo, by Kathleen Herbert. Book review
The full review is on the reviews page of Trifolium Books Blog

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Smashwords is Fun

I have just uploaded a little story I wrote for my grandson a year or two back. Smashwords allows you to upload free books, and all I wanted was to get a wider audience. It was fun doing a cover, I had enjoyed writing the original story and sharing it with Ted, and... before I had time to check how it looked, I had a 5 star review... from Australia! I love the internet!

Please look and comment!

Check Trifolium Books for special offers, coming very soon, on the e version of Moon in Leo

Monday, 16 May 2011

Smashing the Words

Well- I had vowed to do some of my own writing today, but here I am, wrestling with Smashwords, trying to format the text of Moon in Leo to launch on the ebook ocean. Go little book!

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Update on Kathleen

I know all Kathleen's friends and fans will be sad to hear that she is very poorly at the moment- in hospital with a broken hip. A good friend and fellow parishioner, Robert Gerrard, and his wife have been visiting regularly. He says:
Any CLOSE FRIENDS or RELATIVES of Kathleen can contact me on for further details.
I have been very anxious as she was not answering her phone. Unfortunately, I live 350 miles away, but hope to get down to London to visit her in the near future- possibly with a copy of Moon in Leo, which is soon to go to the printers!
I know you will all be thinking of her, and wishing her well.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Back to the keyboard

Moon in Leo and Trifolium Books are ticking away nicely, and there isn’t a lot to do until the ISBNs come through, so I am now free to work on my own stuff.
North Cumbria Scriptwriters meets at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, and has a close association with them.  Last September, four of us were lucky enough to have our plays workshopped by Stefan Escreet and a group of actors at the theatre. This was just about the best experience a playwright could have- hearing their characters brought to life by professional actors. It changed my view of them, and opened up all sorts of possibilities. The keyboard smoked, and I didn’t get a lot of sleep that evening! It also brought home to me that writing, especially script writing, is never an isolated, locked in the garret, activity. A play doesn’t really exist until it is given “a local habitation” by actors, in the same way that an architect’s plan is not a house.
Draft One of Tabitha’s Tablecloth was unfinished, as I had several possible endings in my head. I am now well into Draft Two, and have a deadline to get it finished: 26th January, when several of my friends in Solway Arts have kindly agreed to read parts in an informal performance. I am sure the experience will be nothing like that at Theatre by the Lake, but I hope it will be enjoyable for the small local audience I expect, and I hope they will be kind enough to give me some honest feed-back. So now- no more excuses- back to the keyboard!

Saturday, 8 January 2011

New Blog for Trifolium Books

Following the launch of our new imprint, I have created a new blog/website for the publishing house: Trifolium Books UK 
All news about Kathleen Herbert, Moon in Leo and any other books we decide to publish in future will be posted there, and this blog will eventually revert to a blog about my own writing.
Although the company was formed initially to publish  Moon in Leo, we already have two other manuscripts for consideration. Keep checking Trifolium Books for the latest news!

Wednesday, 5 January 2011


"Love is never lost, never wasted, never dies"

Kathleen Herbert, Moon in Leo